Chapter 30

Back at the bed and breakfast, each member of my team found something to do that allowed them to be alone.  Devlin headed off to his room, claiming a pressing need to catalog his current supplies.  Mila paused long enough to retrieve Sam from his hiding spot in the branches of a cultivated acacia tree before deciding to strip down, clean, and reassemble the weapons she’d stolen from the shanty-town.  Michel wanted to spend some time researching potential vehicles, in case we found ourselves in need of another ride before we had time to purchase another.

I understood the subtext.  The showdown between Fatima and Mamoud had ended differently than anyone could have expected, and we were all going to need some time to come to grips with it.  Since London, we’d danced right along the razor’s edge between success and catastrophic failure.  We’d even deliberately dipped a toe closer to the water line than was safe.  But I’d never really thought that murder was a possibility.  Even Asher hadn’t ever planned to really hurt Ally, so much as to use her as bait.  And he’d been a bad guy.  Moreover, he’d been the Bad Guy.

Fatima was something different.  She was a child, sure, but it was getting increasingly difficult to label her as only that.  She had either styled herself as the Urchin’s protector or had been forced into that role by the needs of her peers.  The responsibility of her charge had made her older than her few years might suggest.  She’d doubtless seen things that I couldn’t imagine; in just the past hour, I’d seen her do things I’d never done.  That much practical experience would change anyone, especially an impressionable child.

I couldn’t remember the last time I’d slept.  Without the steady flow of adrenaline flooding my body, it took every ounce of willpower just to keep my eyes open. Sleep called to me.  My bed had never looked more attractive.  But I had work to do and a limited time frame in which to do it.  So, while the other members of the team went off to kill time and clear their heads, I made myself a massive pot of coffee, curled up on the nearest couch, and opened the files I’d stolen from the shanty-town’s command center.

There were programs on my tablet designed to do most of the heavy lifting, in terms of sorting and collating assorted data files into logical configurations.  Image files went into one folder, documents into another, and so on.  Most of the images consisted of almost pornographic pictures of weapons, in a variety of configurations.  The warlords hadn’t just been in the business of using child soldiers; they’d also been prolific arms dealers in their own individual rights.  The pictures, then, were most likely promotional in nature, designed for any potential customer to see what the warlords had for sale in the most flattering light possible.  I noticed that, in the few images that featured people at all, the soldiers used to model the weapons were all attractive adult males.  I wondered if there was some corollary between the attractiveness of a soldier and whether or not other criminals – predominantly men, based on my limited research – would be interested in making a purchase.

It didn’t take me long to decide on a ‘probably,’ leaning towards ‘yes.’  There were studies linking violence to latent homosexuality.  I might have to read those at a later date.

For the moment, I skimmed briefly through the photos and then moved on to the documents.  Comparatively, there were more of those than I’d expected, but nothing out of the ordinary.  Arms dealers and accountants had at least one thing in common, it seemed: both professions depended inordinately on email.  In the case of the latter, I didn’t quite understand why professional bean counters needed to communicate quite so often.  In the case of the former, it just seemed ill-advised.  But criminals around the world could hardly live their lives under the assumption that a hacker of my skill set would take a personal interest in their business dealings.

There were only a few documents that I found relevant to the Lady’s request for information.  I bundled those with a few of the pictures for context and moved my search into the spreadsheets.  There was more useful information contained within a few pages of spreadsheets than in the entirety of the other two categories: inventory counts, profit margins, arrival and departure dates from specific staging areas and storage locations.  It only took me half a pot of coffee to pair relevant cells from the spreadsheets with documents and pictures, in order to create a cohesive snapshot of the weapon smugglers’ financial interests.  With the last half of the pot, I set to work chasing down banking trails and identifying specific numbered accounts in a half dozen different banks that contained a sizable amount of illegally obtained wealth.

On an ordinary day, or an ordinary job, I would have routed the lion’s share of those funds to thematically appropriate charities – say, something dealing with gun violence or adoption agencies – but something told me that the Lady would look poorly on anything so close to embezzlement.  Besides, it wasn’t as though we weren’t being paid exorbitant amounts of money to do her bidding.  The charities I deemed worthy of attention received more than enough funding to survive without using the arms dealers’ bank to provide further supplementation.

I combined all of the Lady’s requested information into a Zip file, encrypted it, and sent it to the burner email address she was using this week.  By the time I came back from making my second pot of coffee, there was already a response waiting in my inbox. 

 

From CSandiego1234:  Excellent work.  I hope that this task didn’t prove too difficult?

 

It took me a moment to catch the reference: Carmen Sandiego, globe-trotting thief and lady of wealth and luxury, known primarily for how frequently she seemed to disappear.  As jokes went, it wasn’t a bad one.

 

From IreneAdler:  Not much worse than we’ve dealt with before. 

From CSandiego1234:  And your other, personal task?

From IreneAdler:  I took care of your business first. 

From Irene Adler:  …

From Irene Adler:  You’re going to take care of these kids, right?  That wasn’t something you just said?

 

The Lady didn’t immediately reply, which was common enough with her.  While I waited for an answer, I went back to the tablet and dumped the remaining files onto my laptop and started skimming through the emails again.  Before I’d been looking for specific information relating to how the arms dealers had run their business.  Now, I paid greater attention to the metadata behind the messages.  Most were completely mundane accounts, of the sort used by most of us criminals when we had to deal with each other: burner addresses, maybe routed once or twice through different servers, but nothing overly complicated.  I barely glanced at those before I moved on.

I knew I was going through the information faster than prudent, but I could still hear the clock in my head ticking away and it drove me forward.  I’d lost a day and change dealing with the Urchins.  There were only five and a half remaining before the Community decided that the Mouse was a lost cause.  When that happened, they’d declare open war on the Magi and, presumably, Caelum. 

Collectively, we were some of the most skilled hackers on the planet.  If we could ever be herded into working together, there was hardly any system that could withstand our combined forces.  But I had no illusions about our ability to fight against the Magi.  Even if they hadn’t found a way to conscript Caelum’s services, they were too elusive for direct confrontation.  Without a name or network to target, they would be free to isolate and pick us off one at a time.  And if they had hired Caelum to handle their digital dirty work?

I’d survived his first rampage through the Community by virtue of being essentially too small to worry about.  I wouldn’t have that luxury this time.

The tablet beeped at me.  I looked away from the laptop to see what the Lady had said.

 

From CSandiego1234: Ask your partner how well I keep my word.

 

I wouldn’t have to do that.  After London, Devlin and I had spoken at length about his conversations with the Lady and, in specific, that final chat we’d had before the full size of our predicament had became painfully clear.  She was a lot of things – infuriatingly elegant, insultingly superior, and maddeningly enigmatic – but the Lady was not a liar.  If she said she’d do a thing, she’d either succeed or die trying.  Or, more likely, someone else would die trying.

 

From IreneAdler: …sorry.  Tough night.

From CSandiego1234: How so?

From IreneAdler:  You expect me to believe you’re really interested?

From CSandiego1234:  Believe it or not, we are in this together.  Your success is my success; your failure is mine, as well. 

 

I stared at the screen in silence for a few seconds, sipping at my fifth – or was it my sixth? – cup of coffee since returning to the bed and breakfast.  My nerves were beginning to buzz from the excess of caffeine and I knew that I should slow down.  I took another sip anyway while I considered how I should respond to the Lady’s statement.  I knew that she wouldn’t necessarily lie to me, but that didn’t preclude misleading me or allowing me to draw a false conclusion.  I just couldn’t see what she possibly stood to gain by expressing interest in my personal life or my emotional well being.  She’d already proven herself more than capable of tracking us at a whim; I couldn’t imagine there was much about me that she couldn’t find out, given time and a desire to do so.

After a few moments of thought, I decided to test the waters.  A little bit of personal information couldn’t do much more harm than my psychologist’s notes and the Lady had somehow managed to acquire those all on her own.

 

From IreneAdler:  I saw someone die tonight.  Last night.  Whatever.

From CSandiego1234:  Ah.  Was it your first time?

From IreneAdler: Of course it was my first time.  Don’t pretend that you didn’t already know that.

From CSandiego1234:  …

From CSandiego1234: I hadn’t, actually.  Now that I’m looking into it, my own partner is telling me that you wouldn’t necessarily have much experience with this sort of thing.

From IreneAdler:  And you do?

From CSandiego1234 : I have done and seen many things that I would rather not have done or seen. 

 

That seemed almost genuine.  It was the most substantive thing the Lady had ever so much as intimated about her past.  I knew that she was an unseen force within the global criminal community and no one rose to that level of power without getting at least a little blood on their figurative – maybe even literal – hands.  But regret?  I hadn’t seen that coming.

 

From IreneAdler: Why do it, then?  You could stop whenever you wanted to, couldn’t you?

From CSandiego1234:  …

From CSandiego1234: I could no more stop on my path than you could walk away from your partner and leave him to fend for himself, or than the child could leave her flock to make their own way in the world.

 

I blinked.  I’d only just sent her the email with the intelligence about the arms dealers and their network.  I hadn’t even mentioned Fatima, and I certainly hadn’t said anything about the scene inside the sub-basement.

 

From IreneAdler: What are you talking about?

From CSandiego1234: I am only making an educated guess, based on the information I have in front of me.  The child went to rescue her friends, did she not?  Even when it would have been easier to consolidate her power and make her move from a position of strength later?

From IreneAdler:   …what’s your point?

From CSandiego1234: We are all slaves to our nature.  You will do what you will do; I will do what I must.  That is all.

 

A shiver went up my spine.  She’d parroted Fatima, almost exactly, and I knew for a fact that the Lady could not possibly have heard that conversation.  Or, at least I thought I knew.  There wasn’t ever any way to know for sure where the Lady was concerned.

With one eye, I’d been absently clicking through email after email while chatting with the Lady.  Nothing of particular interest had made itself known and I was beginning to lose interest when a single line of metadata caught my attention.   I clicked back and examined it more closely.  The time stamp marked the email as from a few weeks ago, which wasn’t that unusual, but the routing server looked familiar.  A moment later, I recognized the IP address. 

It had served as one of my first VPNs, back in the early days of my nighttime career.  I’d long since cleared out any personal data from the server and, after thoroughly subjugating it to my whims, had gone so far as to craft a convincing false account that would lead any intrepid hackers into a series of traps, specifically designed to cripple a system and alert me to an intruder’s presence. 

None of those traps had gone off, however.  Someone was using a server I’d personally protected to hide their identity and they were doing it with enough skill that I hadn’t even realized it was happening.  This was something interesting.

I clicked to the body of the message.  It was a short email: direct, terse, and without even the barest hint of perfunctory politeness.

 

Have an idea where the target might be hiding out.  I’ll be settling here until further notice: either I catch him or I’ll let you know when I move on.

-C

 

There were a million people who could have identified themselves by that lone initial and a million different reasons that an anonymous person might be communicating with the warlords. Except that this person wasn’t just speaking to the warlords. In fact, the only reason this particular email was on the system at all was because this was a stopping point along the way to its ultimate destination. I’d only been able to identify the familiar server because I’d basically intercepted the message at its first checkpoint. With the network shut down and the Magi pulling up stakes in the area, there was no real hope of following the trail any further.

But I didn’t really need to do that. Because, at that moment, I knew with absolute certainty who ‘C’ was. And, with that certainty, came a cold, uncomfortable clarity. I knew where the Mouse was. If I was right, I knew where Caelum was located, too. There were only a few locations where my old server could be accessed, but one of them made painful, perfect sense.

From IreneAdler: Do you have everything you need?

From CSandiego1234: Everything and more. Do you?

I re-read the email two more times and checked the metadata. Nothing had changed there, no matter how much I’d been wanting it to.

From IreneAdler: We’ll see.

From CSandiego1234: Best of luck, then. And, if I may offer a word to the wise?

From IreneAdler: I’m listening.

From CSandiego1234: No matter what happens from this point on, remember that you cannot undo the choices you make. As they say, you can never go home again. Be certain that this is the path you wish to pursue.

From IreneAdler: Do you know something you aren’t telling me?

From CSandiego1234: Almost certainly. But this is merely friendly advice, from one woman to another.

I was in the middle of typing out a response when the Lady logged off, without even allowing me the grace of a parting shot. That irritated me; I could only imagine how much it frustrated Devlin not to get the last word in.

I packed up my equipment as neatly as possible, with the exception of a single tablet. Then I went to wake up Devlin. His eyes snapped open the moment I touched his shoulder, but I’d grown used to that. I waited for the handful of seconds it would take his brain to catch up to his reflexes. When he blinked twice, sleepily, I knew that he was aware of his surroundings.

I hope you aren’t too comfortable,” I said. “We’re on a time limit and the sooner we can get on a plane, the better.”

What are you -” He stopped, visibly gathered his wits and started over again. “You found something in the data?”

You could say that.”

Where are we going?” Devlin was already tossing the covers and beginning to come back to full awareness. It wasn’t fair that he could do that.

Home,” I said.

San Francisco? Silicon Valley’s kind of an obvious place for a hacker to go, isn’t it?”

I shook my head and showed him the tablet. “Not San Francisco,” I said. “Home.”

He stared at me for a few seconds, clearly unwilling to wrap his head around the implications. “Georgia,” he said finally. “You’re saying the Mouse is in Georgia.”

Well, you know what they say?” A dry chuckle found its way out of my throat. “Turns out you can go home again.”

Chapter 29

From her place, seated atop the Rubbish Throne, Fatima looked over her flock of Urchins and they looked back at her with a mixture of awe and adulation.  They’d stopped chanting her chosen title – Omma, Omma, Omma – and had fallen into hurried whispers and the occasional fully voiced cheer.  Of the guards posted around the edges of the sub-basement, only a few had attempted to flee when Fatima took control of the other orphans. Between the guards who had shifted loyalty immediately and the larger unarmed children who were able to push their way through the crowd, the boys who’d hoped for escape were quickly subdued.  Their weapons were taken from unwilling hands, their arms were pinned in unforgiving holds, and they were dragged bodily down from their positions and across the room to the same place where Fatima had stood and challenged Mamoud for the hearts of the Urchins.

The three guards who’d thrown their lot in with Mamoud, for better or worse, found themselves thrown to the ground mere inches away from their former leader’s still-twitching body.  They looked down at the floor for less than second before they averted their eyes.

Why?” Fatima asked them.  At the sound of her voice, the Urchins fell silent, so that the lone word carried through the still, stagnant air.  “Why would you choose him over your family?”

Hisein translated as she pointed down, at the body I couldn’t see from my position, and some of the beefier Urchins forced the three guards to stare in that direction.  One of them whimpered – in fear or in pain, I wasn’t sure which – while the other two did their best to remain stoic.

Fatima didn’t speak for a long time.  It might have only been thirty seconds, but in the deathly silent sub-basement, with a recently murdered child’s body cooling on the floor, it felt like hours.  The time stretched on, each second passing at a painfully glacial pace.  The little girl wanted an answer, and she was apparently content to wait as long as necessary for the three guards to provide her with one.

I couldn’t stand it.  My skin crawled with revulsion and my stomach threatened to rebel against what I’d just seen.  I wanted to vomit.  I wanted to scramble up the ladder, out of the sub-basement and back to the relative safety of the bed and breakfast, where things made sense.   I wanted to scream at Fatima, to demand an explanation for such an act of unnecessary brutality.  Mamoud had lost control of the Urchins.  The children he’d tricked or sold into service had been rescued.  Had there really been a need to kill him?

Why?” I asked myself out loud, unconsciously mirroring Fatima’s question to the guards.  “Why would she do it?”

She didn’t have a choice,” Mila answered. 

I whirled on her.  Horror and disgust mingled together in my gut and the resulting compound was pure, irrational anger.  “Didn’t have a choice?” I repeated.  “You heard her, same as I did.  She chose to do that.  She didn’t have to.”

Mila, of course, didn’t react to my outburst.   Her expression was a little tighter than normal, however, and her words were a little sharper than they might normally have been.  “What else could she have done?  Let Mamoud go free after what he’d done?”

She could have sent him away,” I said.  “Or…I don’t know, exiled him or something like that, couldn’t she?”

And risk him telling someone where the Urchins are hiding out?”

I didn’t have an immediate answer for that.  The lack of a ready response only stoked my fury more.

He’d already betrayed them once,” Mila continued, “and you think he wouldn’t have done it again out of simple spite?  Grown men lash out when they’ve been humiliated, even when they know better.  Mamoud was a child, Sarah.  He wouldn’t have been able to help himself.”

You’re right; he was a child!  And he’s…he’s dead now!  We did that!  You could have stopped her and you didn’t, because…because…why didn’t you?”

Because it would have happened eventually,” Devlin said.

I spun on him, ready and willing to unload on him for the simple crime of daring to speak, but the stricken look in his eyes brought me up short.  He was staring forward, his vision locked on Fatima, the Rubbish Throne, and the three guards who were still being forced to kneel in Mamoud’s blood. Devlin’s jaw was set like a stone statue and every line of his body was straight and unyielding.  I might have mistaken that posture for his colder nature reasserting itself, if not for the tears I could see in the corner of his eyes. 

She told all of the Urchins that Mamoud was the one who was selling them out,” Devlin continued, never looking away from Fatima for an instant. “Even if she’d let him go…even if he hadn’t gone straight to someone who’d pay for the privilege of flushing out all of these orphans…one of the other Urchins would have found him in the street.  Without friends or money, how long do you think he would have survived in Tangiers?”

I opened my mouth to speak, realized I had nothing to offer, and snapped my jaw shut with an audible click.

This was the only way she could consolidate her power,” Devlin said.  “Now, before someone else got the idea of trying to make an end run around her at a later date.   If another Urchin gets the bright idea to make a little extra by betraying the rest of the orphans, all she has to do is point what she did to the last guy.”

She slit his throat,” I said.  The bitterness in my voice surprised me.  “Killed him in cold blood and took his seat before rigor mortis could even set in.”

It was either that,” Mila said, “or let him die on the street and deal with power struggles in the future.”

So you’re telling me she did the right thing?  That this…”  I gestured vaguely in Fatima’s direction.  “…that this is what she should have done?”

Mila shook her head.  “I’m not saying that at all.  But this is what she had to do, if she wanted to keep the Urchins safe.”

My eyes started to sting.  I looked away from her quickly before any tears could appear.  I would not cry in front of Mila.  She’d just stare at me with those expressionless eyes, silently mocking for me being emotional, and I didn’t have the strength to deal with that.  There were days when I could handle her stoicism with only a raised eyebrow, and we’d worked jobs where that equanimity had served us all well.  This wasn’t one of those times. At that instant, all of my self-control was being used to keep from fleeing the scene and, even then, it was a near thing.

I took several deep breaths with my back turned to Mila.  That meant I was facing Michel now.  Michel, bless his heart, was openly tearing up.  I knew that Devlin was forcing himself to present a firm face, and I would probably appreciate that later when my emotions weren’t torn between fury and heartbreak, but there was something reaffirming about seeing someone else openly displaying the turmoil I felt inside.

Without a word, Michel reached out his arms and pulled me into a hug.  I returned every pound of pressure and, somehow, kept myself from sobbing as well.

It is not supposed to be like this,” Michel said into the curve of my neck.  “Things like this…they are not supposed to happen.”

Wordlessly, I agreed with him; out loud, I just returned the hug and stayed silent.

It’s not over,” Mila said, still as maddeningly calm as ever.

I pulled away from the hug and forced myself to face Fatima and the Throne again.  She was speaking to the guards in Arabic now and the words were too soft to make out.  Whatever she was saying had an effect on one of the kneeling boys.  He responded to her gentle tone, looking up at her from his knees as if pleading for forgiveness.  He and Fatima exchanged a few sentences before the little girl touched his cheek with the back of one hand – the same hand that, until moments ago, had held the knife she used to kill Mamoud – and gestured for the Urchins to let him stand.  The other two guards were carried away and the surging crowd of orphans blocked them from my vision before too long.

Friends!” Fatima called out, switching back to English.

I think that’s us,” Mila said. 

Fatima climbed back atop the dais so that she was fully visible over the heads of the other children and gestured with both arms for us to approach.  I was concerned about stepping on one of the orphans, but the Urchins we’d rescued from the shanty-town quickly formed up into a protective circle around us.  With their help, we easily pushed through the assemblage.  By unspoken consent, the four of us stopped well short of the spot where Mamoud’s body lay.

My family would have been lost without you,” Fatima said, seating herself in the exact middle of the Rubbish Throne.  “My brothers and sisters, taken away in the dead of night.  I will always owe you for this.”

I exchanged a look with Devlin.  He’d wiped the unshed tears from his eyes at some point.  His irises were red and he was sniffling slightly, but he was at least capable of presenting a somewhat neutral expression.  I was still seething internally, twisted up in knots of sadness, grief, and outrage, and I knew that my emotions must have been written all across my face.  I didn’t trust myself to say anything even vaguely diplomatic or polite, so I waited for Devlin to take the lead.

Instead, he motioned for me to speak. 

I stared at him for several seconds, but he didn’t change his mind.  I considered turning to Mila and, in the same instant that thought occurred to me, dismissed it out of hand.  Diplomacy wasn’t her strong suit. 

If Devlin wanted me to take the lead, then so be it.

I don’t know that I want this to be on my tab,” I said to Fatima.  I took great care not to even look in the direction of Mamoud’s body.  “We offered to help you, not to put you in a position to kill someone.”

Fatima’s expression shifted slightly.  The imperious aura and the motherly compassion flickered out of existence for just an eye blink.  She said something to Hisein in Arabic and he relayed orders to some of the Urchins who’d been serving as Fatima’s de facto honor guard.  All of them moved away, towards Mamoud’s remains, and left my team and I alone with the new leader of the Urchins.

You did help me,” Fatima said.  She pitched her voice so that it wasn’t loud enough to carry anymore.  Having seen her work on such a grand scale previously, I wasn’t sure if that was more theatre or a genuine gesture.  “You know what would have happened to us if you had not been there.”

Why’d you send Hisein away?”

Fatima looked away for an instant before answering.  “Most of the others do not speak English,” she said.  “Hisein learned from me.  He might not understand everything that you say to me.”

Where did you learn English?” I asked, despite myself.  That was hardly the most important question that needed to be asked.

I did not always live here,” Fatima said.  “The people at Jahannam…I have known men like them before.  Like them, and worse.”

I shuddered.  The slavers at the shanty-town had fully intended on kidnapping a horde of innocent orphans and selling them off to God-knows-who in God-knows-what country.  There were worse criminals that I knew of, but I didn’t want to think of them interacting with Fatima.  She was still only a little girl.  For her to have any experience with filth even lower than slave traders at such a young age was unthinkable.

A little girl, I reminded myself, who’d just murdered her rival as an act of theatre.  It wouldn’t do me any good to forget exactly who I was talking to.

Hisein speaks perfectly good English,” I said.  “He’d know what I was saying about as well as you would.”

It is not the language,” Fatima said.  “It is the…tone?  Is that the word?”

You mean that you didn’t want him to hear how I feel about what you did.”

Correct,” Fatima said.  She had the decency to seem a bit embarrassed about that, but she kept her head high.  “I am not proud of what this, but it was necessary.”

I scoffed.  “Murder is never necessary.”

Mila couldn’t help but shoot me a reproachful look.  I could feel her gaze on my skin.

Self defense is one thing,” I amended.  That provision didn’t cover everything Mila had done in her previous life – it probably didn’t even cover the better half – but she’d have to deal.  She had her principles and I had mine.  “But someone defenseless, who’d already been beaten?”

Hisein believes in me,” Fatima said.  “He believes that I do what I must to protect him and the rest of my family.  He must continue to believe in me.  His faith inspires the others to listen, to see what I will do for them.  But he also respects you, so…”

I understood, even though I didn’t particularly want to.  Politics was a game of appearances.  Fatima had only just taken control of the Urchins and there’d been at least two shifts in power in the last twelve to twenty-four hours.  The Urchins we’d rescued from the shanty-town had already given their absolute loyalty to Fatima for saving them, but there were likely holdouts from Mamoud’s short reign hidden amongst the main body of the warehouse Urchins.  The wrong words, spoken around the wrong people, could plant the seeds for another power struggle in the future.

You think he’d try to take your place?” I asked.

Fatima shook her head.  “No.  Never that.  But he might say something, without meaning to.”

I digested that in silence for a few moments.  If it wasn’t about protecting her newly claimed power, why had she insisted Hisein leave her side?  If anything, he’d earned his place as her most stalwart supporter.  The events of the night proved that a dozen times over.

Doubt,” Mila said.  “It’s not about him doubting you.  You don’t want him to doubt himself.”

Fatima nodded.  “You understand.”

That sentiment, coming from Mila, was a lot deeper than it appeared.  She’d been an orphan too, or at least a foster child.  Devlin knew more about her past than I did.  What I’d gleaned, however, spoke to a rough upbringing; that upbringing, coupled with her eerie detachment from emotions, had led her to a life as a mercenary.

But that wasn’t true either.  Mila hadn’t been a mercenary before; she’d been a hitwoman.  Mercenary had just been a less morally repellent title for her activities.

She’d left that job behind her, but I’d never asked her why.  I didn’t even think Devlin had broached the subject.  It had something to do with her previous boss, Aiden.  But had it been more than that?  Had she started to doubt whether or not she was doing the right thing?  Was there a right thing in her mind?

I’d have to dig deeper into it later, when the opportunity presented itself. 

Hisein and the other boys knelt, lifted Mamoud from the floor, and carried him away.  They treated the body with a surprising amount of respect, all things considered.

Wasn’t there any other way this could have gone?” I asked Fatima.

The look she gave me in response both shockingly world-weary and childishly vulnerable, at the same time.  “Was there?”

Again, I didn’t have an answer to that.

After about thirty seconds, Fatima sighed heavily.  “I have never…done that before,” she said.  “It is not something I want to do again.”

If you don’t want to, then don’t.”

I cannot control that.”  She extended an arm and indicated the entire body of Urchins, still watching our conversation with rapt attention.  “You said that you know someone who can help us.  If this is true, then I hope I will never have to protect my family from betrayal again.”

But if you do?”

Fatima took in a deep breath and squared her shoulders.  When she met my eyes, I saw steel in the little girl’s bearing.  “I will be who I have to be,” she said.  “You have your family to protect; I have mine.”

It wasn’t just my family.  The Community was on the verge of fatally fracturing.  The Mouse was in the wind, fleeing from an enemy whose ire I’d incited.  And my team…we were playing with fire, on the scale of Prometheus and the Gods.  To protect them, I’d stolen, misled, conned, and broken the law on a dozen different occasions just in the past six months.

Was I really in a position to criticize how someone protected their own?

You made a deal with Farrad,” Fatima said, visibly pulling her mask back together.  As I watched, she reassembled the poise and control she’d been wearing when I’d first seen her.  “If you need our help, you will have it.”

I patted at the bag slung over my shoulder.  The tablet, filled with data stripped from the shanty-town, was still in position.  Exhaustion threatened to drag me into unconsciousness, but I was on a time limit. 

No,” I said.  “We got what we needed.  We’re even.”

Fatima shook her head.  “No.  We will never be even.  What you have done is…”

She trailed off and I couldn’t stop myself from looking at the spot where Mamoud had previously been.  Some of the smaller Urchins were industriously attempting to clean the blood from the floor before it could grow cold and sticky.  I could only stand a few seconds of that image before I averted my eyes.

I don’t want to think about what I’ve done,” I said.  “Right now, all I can deal with is what I have to do.”

Fatima met my eyes for an interminable second and something passed between us.  It wasn’t quite an understanding, but it was something in that family. 

She nodded solemnly.  “Go, then, and do what you must.”

That was as good a sendoff as I was going to get.  I turned on my heel and left the sub-basement, my team following in my wake.

Chapter 28

Over the many years of our relationship, Devlin had managed to get me in the room with a Western film one or two times.  It wasn’t my favorite genre, by any stretch of the imagination, and I was fairly sure that it wasn’t even his.  Still, there were a few movies that we both considered superlative works.  They dealt with near-identical themes of isolation, strange men, beautiful women, and danger so thick you could feel it on your skin.  Most of all, they had the showdown; that moment when the black hat and the white hat shot each other looks filled with hatred and condemnation, and only one of the two would leave the dusty street alive.

That was how it felt to watch Fatima walk through the crowd of Urchins until she stood only a few feet away from Mamoud, his dais, and the Rubbish Throne.

I didn’t have much room to move, what with the tight press of bodies against mine, but I did manage to turn my head so that I could give Devlin a questioning look.

She knew this was coming,” he responded.   “If Mamoud hadn’t made his move now, he would have done it when she wasn’t paying attention.  In a way, it’s almost a good thing that he got impatient.”

I flicked my eyes around the edges of the crowd.  There were still big, burly boys armed with clubs and makeshift blades, standing guard but otherwise not getting involved.  “How exactly is this a good thing?” I asked.

She just scored a huge victory by rescuing the rest of the Urchins from the shanty-town.  If he was banking on her failure or death, then he’s not going to be prepared for a confrontation like this.”

I wasn’t sure that I was prepared for a confrontation like this, and it didn’t even directly affect me.

Fatima glared up at Mamoud in defiance of his elevated position.  That wasn’t the easiest thing to do.  There was a primal connection between height and presumed authority, something that ran deep in the human condition; that was why kings generally preferred to force their supplicants to look up at them.  If she felt any lingering subconscious feelings of subordination, however, Fatima kept her expression and body language perfectly under her control.

They stood like that for several long seconds, neither Urchin daring to speak first.  Eventually, Mamoud broke under Fatima’s scrutiny.  He whispered into the ear of the boy next to him at length.  When he finished, Mamoud leaned back in the Throne and gestured.

You should have stayed away while you had the chance,” the boy translated, for our benefit.  Fatima probably wasn’t close enough to hear the whispered words but, if she had been, she could have translated them for herself.  “But Mamoud will be a good leader.  Kneel, and he will allow you to remain with us.”

The boy repeated Mamoud’s proclamation in Arabic for the crowd.  The children shifted their weight and shuffled their feet nervously as the words settled over them, but none of them spoke.

Where is Farrad?” Fatima asked.  Hisein took on the duties of translating her voice for the larger audience.

Mamoud considered the best way to answer that question.  While he did that, I angled my head slightly in Devlin’s direction again.  “Why is she doing that?”

Doing what?”

Speaking in English,” I said.  “She doesn’t need to do it.”

It’s about keeping them on an even playing field,” Devlin answered.  “Mamoud isn’t speaking for himself, see?  He’s got a spokesperson to carry his words to the Urchins.  If Fatima tried to address the crowd, it would make her look like a…I guess supplicant is the closest word?”

But she isn’t talking to the crowd, even by implication.  This is a conversation between her and Mamoud.”

It’s political,” Devlin said.  “They aren’t really trying to decide who gets to sit on the Throne; they’re battling over the Urchins themselves.  Whoever wins will take power, by default.”

I suppressed a groan.  There’d been plenty of politics to deal with, growing up in the Ford household.  When senators and representatives weren’t trying to wheedle money out of my family, they were busy trying to position members of my family as prop pieces for their latest re-election campaign.  Being black, liberal, and Southern wasn’t particularly noteworthy.  Having all three of those traits and a staggering amount of wealth, however, was.

If I looked at the situation from a political standpoint, Mamoud’s larger plan began to make a bit more sense.  He’d been playing several angles from the very beginning.  Serving as the power behind Farrad’s rule had allowed him to amass followers without directly coming into confrontation with any other claimants to the Rubbish Throne.  When it became clear to him that Fatima would be his chief rival, he must have collaborated with the warlords, in order to manufacture a crisis and to build up wealth that he could use to curry favor with the rest of the Urchins.  My team’s arrival – uninvited, but with clear ties to Fatima, by way of Hisein – had allowed him an opportunity to dispose of her and to take power in the ensuing chaos.

Mamoud gave his response to his translator, who delivered it in a hesitant, halting voice.  “Farrad made mistakes,” the translator said.  “When our brothers and sisters went missing, Farrad profited from their sale.  He betrayed all of us.”

How?”

Devlin let out a low whistle.  “That’s extra sneaky,” he said, mostly to himself.  “Although Mamoud’s not going to see it that way.”

Instead of asking him to explain, I tried to reason out Devlin’s meaning on my own.   How had Mamoud managed to unseat Farrad, a leader whose own indolence hadn’t quite been enough to force him from the Rubbish Throne?  What had changed?

The answer came to me a moment later.  “The slavers,” I whispered.  “He knew they were coming, didn’t he?”

That’s what I’m thinking,” Devlin said.  I hoped I wasn’t imagining the note of pride in his voice.  “One last pay off to the local supplier – that’d be him – and then they’d take all of the other Urchins out of the country.  Mamoud relies on the panic that’s been building up here for a while, stokes it, and when they finally go to see what’s going on at the barracks…”

They don’t see anything.  No other Urchins, no warlords or child soldiers.”

Nothing’s worse than nothing,” Devlin said, nodding.

I thought some more.  That wasn’t the whole picture.  Why had Devlin said that Mamoud wouldn’t be happy about his coup?  What did the newly crowned leader of the Urchins want?

I turned the question around in my mind.  What had he been given?

He wasn’t planning on witnesses,” I said, speaking my thoughts out loud for my own benefit.  “Now there are people who were actually at the shanty-town and they’ll have stories of their own to tell.”

Go on,” Devlin urged me.

And…it’s entirely possible that the Urchins we brought back might have heard something from their captors,” I said.  “Maybe something about a child who was helping them out?”

Bingo.  Now, the only way that Mamoud can prove Farrad was on the take is…”

He trailed off and, after a second or two, I realized that he was inviting me to finish his thought for him.  I wasn’t sure if that was patronizing or encouraging.  “He’ll have to show them the money,” I said.  “Mamoud can lie about finding Farrad’s stash of money, but then he’ll have to divvy that out for the rest of the Urchins.  He can’t keep it under wraps anymore.”

And Fatima,” Devlin said, “just walked him into admitting its existence.  If he doesn’t, then her story will carry more weight.  If he does, he sold out his brothers and sisters for money that he won’t even get to keep.”

Sure enough, the translator on the dais spoke after a quick consultation with Mamoud.  “He took money from the people in Jahannam,” the boy said.  “Payment, so that they could take our family from us.”

Is that so?” Fatima countered.  She turned her head slightly – not enough that she was looking entirely away from Mamoud, but enough that my team and me should have been visible in her periphery – before she continued speaking.  “I think that the ones I have rescued will have a different tale to tell.”

They are frightened,” Mamoud said, through his translator.  “When they have calmed down, we can ask them what they know.”

By the time he thinks they’re ready to talk,” Mila muttered, “I’d be willing to bet Fatima will have had a little accident.”

You think he’d go that far?” I asked her.

Do you see Farrad anywhere?”

I searched the crowd nearest to me and, thanks to the relative height differences between myself and a bunch of underfed children, the farthest lines of the crowd away from me.  I couldn’t pick Farrad out but, at the same time, I hadn’t spent much attention memorizing his features. 

No,” I said.  “What’s your point?”

This guy’s following in the footsteps of his employers.  Get rid of all witnesses, then spin the narrative however you want.  The life expectancy of an Urchin can’t be that high; it wouldn’t surprising if Fatima, say, tripped on some stairs and gave herself a concussion, would it?”

Privately, I had to admit that she had a point.  If anyone would know the best possible use of violence, it’d be Mila.  That was her bread and butter.  I just didn’t want to admit that she was right.  Everything I’d seen in the past twelve hours or so still hadn’t fully disabused me of the notion that these were children.  Frightened children, forced to live a life that few could have survived, sure, but still…children.  They weren’t capable of murder.

Liar!”

Fatima was small, even for her age, but the shout that came from her had all the weight and command of a grown adult.  In the eerily quiet sub-basement, the single word echoed off of the walls.  Hisein didn’t bother to translate that for the assembled Urchins.

Liar,” Fatima repeated, in a softer – though no less commanding – voice.  “Farrad did not betray us.  You did.”

Mamoud’s expression flickered for an instant.  The haughty air vanished and, in its place for just a heartbeat, fear appeared in the lines of his face. The moment passed too quickly for any of the Urchins to notice, but I’d been around Devlin for too long to miss a tell that obvious.

He conferred with the translator for a minute before the boy responded.  “You accuse Mamoud of this, but you do not have any proof.  If you could prove your lies, then you would.  But you cannot.”

I was positive that hadn’t been translated properly, if at all.  I suspected that Mamoud’s actual sentence had involved more invectives and swears, and the translator had simply plucked a message from the vitriol.  The anger on Mamoud’s face, gradually wiping away any trace of haughtiness, certainly lent itself to that interpretation.

What will you do now?” Fatima asked.  “Pretend that I sent our brothers and sisters to work for the soldiers?  Claim that you are the only one who can protect them from the adults who would use us?”

Mamoud didn’t say anything and neither did his translator.  He simply glared down at Fatima, as if the force of his anger could incinerate her on the spot.

Faitima was neither incinerated, nor was she intimidated.  She turned her back fully on Mamoud, so that she faced the Urchins and raised her voice so that it carried.  “When you have been hungry, who has fed you?  When you have been cold, who has brought you blankets?  Was it him?”  She pointed, without turning, at Mamoud. 

An unfocused murmur went through the Urchins at the question.  Even some of the older boys – the ones standing guard at strategically appropriate positions – shifted uncomfortably and looked at no one in particular. 

Who will you believe?” Fatima asked the Urchins.  Hisein kept up his translation in real-time, raising his voice to match Fatima’s.  “Will it be the one who took power for himself?”

She let that hang in the air.  I was struck, once more, at her natural talent for oration.  She couldn’t possibly have received any training and English probably wasn’t her first, second, or third language.  But Fatima had a natural grasp for flair and it was serving her well at the moment.  Mamoud couldn’t order an attack against her while she held the attention of the Urchins.  Doing so would be tantamount to an admission of guilt.  At the same time, he couldn’t run away, either, without tacitly admitting that Fatima was telling the truth.  All he could do was sit in the Throne and hope that more people bought his version of events than believed in hers.

Your brothers and sisters…my brothers and sisters were taken, to be used as soldiers,” Fatima said, “and they needed help.  Ask them for yourselves what would have happened to them, if they had been left in Jahannam.”

Some of the Urchins closest to our little knot turned, questions almost visible on their lips, before they went back to listening to Fatima.

But Hisein found people who would help and he brought them here, to us.”  She left out the fact that we’d followed Hisein against his knowledge.  It wouldn’t have fit into the narrative she was weaving and I was beginning to see the general shape of it as she added threads to the story.   “I went into Jahannam with these strangers and, together, we brought back our stolen family.  Look at them now, home again; look at them, with their brothers and sisters upstairs.  They are back and we brought them back.”

More murmurs came from the crowd.  For the most part, the whispers weren’t in any language I spoke, but there was a familiarity to some of the sounds.  There was a word that the Urchins were repeating amongst themselves.  I’d heard it before somewhere; I just couldn’t put my finger on exactly where or in what context.

Do you think she’s got this?” Mila asked.  I started to respond, before I realized the question wasn’t directed at me.

She’s got this,” Devlin said.  “I’m just not sure how far Mamoud’s willing to go to keep from losing control of this?”

To my relatively untrained eyes and ears, it seemed like Mamoud had already lost the crowd.  The Urchins had been silent and tense around him, obedient because they’d had no other options.  I couldn’t know how long he’d waited after our departure to make his move, but it had at least been a few hours.  In just a few minutes, Fatima had taken them from him with nothing but her words and a little grandstanding.

Who will you believe?” Fatima repeated.  “Will it be him?  Or will it be your mother?”

I blinked.  Mother?  Where had that come from?

It didn’t make sense until I listened to Hisein’s translation.  He’d been speaking at a rapid clip, doing his best to match the peaks and valleys of Fatima’s speech, so I almost missed it.  Where she’d given a little bit of a dramatic pause before dropping the last word, Hisein did the same. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have known which Arabic word he’d used for ‘mother:’ omma.

The Urchins had whispered amongst themselves when Mamoud had maneuvered Fatima out of the warehouse to begin with.  When we’d saved them at the shanty town, they’d used the same word.  And now, escalating from a quiet current into a dull roar, they were yelling it now.  Omma. Omma.  Omma.

She’d styled herself as their mother.  That had been her path to power: not violence, but compassion.  And, in sending her off to die, Mamoud had inadvertently given her an opportunity to present that compassion in living form.

To his credit, the boy on the Rubbish Throne realized immediately how badly he’d misjudged his opponent.  He was only one man – one child, really – against a surging ocean of other orphans who now believed in his guilt.  A confession would have been redundant.  If Fatima had told her flock of Urchins to run into a burning building at that exact moment, they would have done so smiling.

Mamoud jumped off of the Throne and tried to flee.  He only made it a few steps before a beefy young boy in the front of the crowd, ostensibly placed there to keep any unruly Urchins from drawing too close, hit him in the gut with a heavy length of wood.  Even from this distance, even over the rising chants, I could hear Mamoud gasp in pain before trying to suck down precious oxygen.  The boy – previously Mamoud’s guard and now, apparently, in service to Fatima – grabbed both of Mamoud’s arms and held them behind his back.

He asked Fatima a question in Arabic and she responded in the same language.  The boy dragged Mamoud’s struggling form back to the Rubbish Throne and forced him to sit in the chair once more.

I must be there for this,” Hisein said, in English.  I started to reply, but he left without giving me an opportunity to do so. 

That was something,” Devlin said, while Hisein made his way through the Urchins.  His role as Fatima’s translator apparently afforded him some privileges.  The children parted for him much as they’d parted for her, albeit at a slower, more reluctant pace.

What do you think she’ll do with him?” I asked.  “They can’t keep him here indefinitely, can they?”

Devlin shared a significant look with Mila before he dropped his gaze, studiously taking care not to meet my eyes.

What is it?” I asked again.  “Is there something I’m missing?”

Even Mila wouldn’t look directly at me.  Michel, standing just behind Mila to the right, wore the confused, slightly manic expression that I felt must have been on my own face.

I started to ask them a third time, but some commotion from the dais distracted me.  Hisein had reached the area and helped Fatima up.  Now, the little girl stood to one side of the throne, in the exact same place she’d been on our first visit to the Urchins’ sub-basement.  The children quieted down.  An expectant air fell over the room. 

You are not one of us anymore,” Fatima said to Mamoud.  “You sent us to die, so that you could sit on the Throne.”

Mamoud struggled to free himself from the bigger boy’s grasp, but to no avail.  Failing at that, he shut his eyes tightly, as if searching for a memory. When he found the object of his search and opened his eyes again, there were tears on his cheeks.  They glistened in the dim light. 

Choice,” he managed to say, in English.  He was still fighting to free himself.  “Had…no choice.”

While I asked myself how much English Mamoud actually spoke and how much of his reliance on Arabic had simply been an affectation, Fatima reached into her pocket and removed a pocket knife.  In the hands of someone larger, it would have only been a toy, but it looked massive and perfectly formed for her delicate fingers. 

But I do,” she said and gestured to Hisein.  The scarred boy took a handful of Mamoud’s hair and jerked his head violently backward, exposing his throat.

I realized what was going to happen an instant before it did.  I knew why Devlin wouldn’t look at me, why Mila had gone silent.  It was so obvious now that I couldn’t believe I’d been overlooking it – deliberately overlooking it – for the duration of this show.  Fatima was a politician, when it came to the Urchins, but she was a survivor above all else. 

No!” I cried out, but it was too late.

In a neat motion, Fatima flicked her wrist so that the blade extended from the pocket knife and then drew it across Mamoud’s throat in a single sharp line.  Immediately, blood began to well from the cut, then began to pour more heavily.  Mamoud kept struggling, but I suspected that his muscles weren’t under his control anymore. 

The bigger boy holding Mamoud’s arms released them and Hisein shoved his head down with so much force that Mamoud fell out of the chair.  He landed on the ground, mercifully in a position where I could no longer see his death throes, and vanished from sight.

Fatima stared down at the spot where Mamoud’s body must have landed for a long time.  Then, with excruciating grace, she took his place upon the Rubbish Throne.

I shouldn’t have been able to hear her soft words from this distance, but that didn’t take anything away from the feeling that she was speaking specifically for my benefit. 

And,” Fatima said to the body, “I choose this.”

Chapter 27

Our borrowed method of transportation lasted longer than I would have expected – far enough away that the shanty town and its growing pillar of smoke grew small in our wake, almost back to the warehouse where the main body of Urchins hid themselves away from the city – until its engine finally gave up the ghost. It sputtered, coughed, hacked, and died in a violent burst of thick, black smoke that darkened the windows even more and threatened to find its way in through the occasional crack in the vehicle’s walls.

Fatima, Hisein, and the newly retrieved members of her honor guard herded the younger Urchins off of the bus and into a semblance of a line. They led the children through the side streets of the city, taking great care to avoid any popular thoroughfares as the sun climbed higher into the sky. Tourists and locals alike were waking up and preparing to start their days of shopping, selling, or stealing. No reason to disrupt that ritual if not absolutely necessary.

The sight of a disorganized crowd of filthy orphans marching through the streets would probably have alarmed a few people under normal circumstances, but I suspected that the adult members of the underworld in this city had honed the ability to ignore unpleasant truths. No matter how well equipped and trained the slavers had been, there simply wasn’t any way that one of the Urchins’ own number could have provided them with enough information to get away with as many children as they’d nearly absconded with. Someone among the shopkeepers and pickpockets – probably more than a few someones – must have known what was happening and been complicit in it. 

I wished I had the time to dig deeper into that. With a little time, my team and I could deal truly awful damage to any organization that had tacitly allowed kidnapping and slavery to take place under their watch. But I’d already lost a full twenty-four hours in pursuit of equipment – equipment which I hadn’t even managed to acquire – and there were only two days left on the Community’s impossibly short timer.

Oh well. I could always come back later. When the Lady used the information I’d stolen to claim power in the area, there would inevitably be a few stragglers who’d try to continue operating without her consent. There’d be a target or two worthy of my scorn and attention when I could afford to spend the time such an endeavor required.

Devlin, Michel, Mila, and I formed the rear guard of the troupe of Urchins. Even Mila didn’t think the slavers would attempt an attack in broad daylight with witnesses, in an area where the cops frequently patrolled. That didn’t keep her from staying tense and prepared, however. Every step she took seemed deliberate, placed with exquisite care, so that she was never fully off balance. The guns she’d brought into the shanty town had vanished back into the appropriate holsters. The bag of weapons she’d pilfered from the slavers was zipped shut and slung over one shoulder. To the average passerby, it could have been anything from a change of clothes or a sackful of souvenirs.

I didn’t understand how she could still be so alert. The adrenaline I’d been using as fuel for so many hours in the shanty town had long since run out. In its absence, I felt a little lightheaded and the world spun – just a little bit – around the edges. I stumbled over every third or fourth step, unless I forced myself to pay specific attention to where my feet landed, at what angle, or with how much pressure. Doing that just made me more exhausted and sharpened the feeling of nausea from a distant thought to an immediate pressing concern, however, so I just accepted the occasional misstep as the cost of doing business. 

We didn’t talk much as we walked back to the warehouse.  Mila and Michel were a little bit ahead of Devlin and me, speaking to each other in low whispers.  Every now and again, as they swung their arms back and forth, their fingers just barely touched.  Michel seemed to be unaware of the incidental contact, but I couldn’t imagine that Mila was doing it by accident.  In virtually every other circumstance, she’d been in complete control of where her body was and hyper-cognizant of its movement through space.

I’d known people who got worked up after a job.  Maybe that was Mila’s thing?  But if that was her personal fetish, wouldn’t something have already happened after London and the other frenetic jobs we’d tackled since that first assignment?  Had something already happened?

Next to me, Devlin cleared his throat.  “So,” he began, “I feel like I should make it clear that I did have a plan to get out of that situation.”

I lifted an eyebrow in his direction, slow and dramatic, and waited for him to elaborate.

I know you said that you don’t want me risking my life for no reason.  Or assuming that you guys would all be better off leaving me to stew in my own mess.  That wasn’t the case…at least, not this time.”

Oh?”  I made my mouth into a perfect little ‘o’ and laid a hand on my chest, like an antebellum southern belle.  “Please, tell me how you were going to slip that particular noose, Devlin?”

We had flairs on the bus,” Devlin answered, “and there were two propane tanks that we stole from one of the generators.  When we’d gotten some distance, I was going to use the flairs in conjunction with the propane tanks to make things more difficult for the rest of the slavers.  It was the same thing I did to get the first explosion, only I was pretty sure I could aim the tank for maximum effect.”

He didn’t even have the grace to pretend like he hadn’t known exactly what to do beforehand.  While I’d been panicking and desperately attempting to string together some series of events that wouldn’t end in someone’s violent death, Devlin had already crafted an escape plan for himself. 

I scowled before I could help myself.  “You expected there to be as many slavers as there were?”

He shook his head.  “No, but I knew they’d send everything they had after me.  The fact that I was just serving as bait didn’t occur to them.  As far as they knew, I could have driven straight back to the town and alerted the authorities.  They needed to keep what they were doing as quietly as possible, after all.”

I really wanted to poke holes in his reasoning, purely out of spite, but he seemed to be on pretty solid ground.  “What happened to your earbud? Why couldn’t you tell us what you were thinking about doing?”

How do you think I got the flairs?” Devlin asked.  “Hisein and I had to sort of tag team a pair of guards that were patrolling away from the main group.  I guess one of them got in a lucky hit.  I didn’t really have an opportunity to start looking for the earbud at the time and, besides, I didn’t even realize that I’d dropped it until too late.”

That was a valid response, unfortunately.  A deep well of frustration boiled in my stomach and Devlin wasn’t being courteous enough to give me something I could actually vent that frustration on.  With no other recourse, I tightened my jaw, crossed my arm, and tried very hard not to yell at him for no reason at all for the rest of the trip back to the warehouse.

The abandoned building looked different in the early morning light.  It was still a massive construction, still run down from years of benign neglect, but it didn’t seem as monolithic as the previous night.  At the head of the line of Urchins, Fatima rapped out a sharp code on the big double doors. About a minute passed a series of knocks came from the other side of the doors.

Fatima gestured to her flock, speaking in Arabic.  Then, she raised her eyes so that she was looking at my team and switched to English.  “Something is wrong,” she said.

It was a testament to how tired I was – a night without sleep was one thing, but that same night after running on adrenaline for hours was a whole new level of exhaustion – that I barely shrugged at Fatima’s pronouncement.  Of course something was wrong.  Something was always wrong.

Devlin fared better with the adrenaline withdrawal and general sleep deprivation than I did.  “What’re you talking about?”

I do not know,” Fatima said.  “But…something.  You feel it too, Hisein?”

The boy was in the midst of the crowd of Urchins, albeit slightly closer to the front.  His height allowed him to look over the shortest children without too much trouble.  He nodded in response to Fatima’s question.

What kind of trouble are we talking about?” Mila asked.

Nothing I cannot handle,” Fatima said.  She repeated the knock-code, altered just slightly and stepped back.

After a few beats of silence, the massive double doors at the front of the warehouse swung outward.  When my eyes adjusted to the darkness inside the building, I saw that the doors were being opened by several of the Urchins.  Two of the beefier orphans could have handled a door by themselves, but someone had tasked the weakest and most underfed to this particular duty.  It took four of the Urchins to open each side until Devlin, Michel, and two of Fatima’s honor guard stepped up to assist them.

When the Urchins on door duty saw who’d summoned them, they each went still with shock.  When they saw past Fatima, to the teeming horde of their brothers and sisters they’d thought long dead, every single one of their little mouths dropped open in surprise.  Some ran forward, pushing their way through any resistance, until they could hold their presumed-dead loved ones.  Others backed into the gloom of the warehouse, seeking safety and assurances before they allowed themselves to hope again.

One of the Urchins – he hadn’t been a part of the crew assigned to open the door, but had merely been nearby – took one look at Fatima, one at the assembled Urchins, and one at my team and me before he spun on one heel and fled deeper into the warehouse’s guts.

If we were hoping to surprise Mamoud,” Devlin said, “we certainly can’t do it now.”

What makes you think he’s reporting to Mamoud?”  I asked.

Who do you think would be most interested in knowing that Fatima didn’t just come back, but that she came back and rescued the kidnapped Urchins?”

Mamoud.”  I felt idiotic for not immediately coming to that conclusion but, in my defense, I was extremely tired.

Devlin didn’t seem to notice my lapse in common sense or, if he did, he was choosing to display common sense in keeping any uncharitable thoughts locked up inside his head.  Six of one, half a dozen of the other; whatever his reasoning, he didn’t say anything further.

When we were able to separate the interior Urchins from the exterior ones, we followed the children back to the secret door leading down into the basement.  As we went, clusters and knots of children peeled off, in search of somewhere to lay their heads.  The warehouse lacked amenities like clean bedding, water to shower with, sufficient food storage, and so on; but one thing it had plenty of was empty space.  When some of the exterior Urchins spotted an empty spot on the floor, they rushed over to claim it before someone else could see the same space.

It didn’t matter how quickly they went, however.  There was more than enough empty square footage to house all of the Urchins.  Not all of them went, though.  By the time we reached the secret door, our party size had trickled down to a thin fraction of its previous number.  Mila, Michel, Devlin, and I collectively formed the core team.  Fatima and Hisein walked side by side – or nearly side by side, since he kept distance at a half step behind her – and continued to confer with each other in quick Arabic.  Of the Urchins we’d rescued, about one in five had chosen to stay with Fatima and the rest of us, in order to see how things would play out.

I couldn’t blame them.  If it had been me in their shoes, I would’ve demanded to see the person who’d sold us out pay for his crimes personally. 

The underground lair where the Urchins congregated was filled to the brim with orphaned children.  At the bottom of the ladder, there was only enough space for a child of Fatima’s size.  When she stepped into that circle of space, her head held high and proud, all of the Urchins stared at her for a long, pregnant second.  Then, with a gesture and a word from Fatima, they cleared away enough for the rest of us – the team, Hisein, and the Urchins who had stayed to see what came next – to join her.

Almost immediately, I felt the difference in the atmosphere.  There was an almost recognizable scent in the air, metallic and hot.  Everyone was too tense and that feeling spread through the group of Urchins we’d retrieved like a plague.  In the hours since we’d left on our mission, somethingdrastic had taken place.  We’d missed a development while we’d been away.  I could only guess at what that development had been.

Look,” Devlin whispered, directly into my ear.  He pointed past my head, toward the dais where the Rubbish Throne sat. 

It hit me, then, and I knew who would be seated upon the Throne.

Mamoud didn’t occupy the chair with the same lazy, dismissive air of his predecessor Farrad.  He leaned forward, elbows on knees, like a waiting predator.  I couldn’t actually see his pupils from this distance, but I could easily imagine that they were narrowed in our direction.

The little bastard,” Mila muttered.  “You think he had this planned?”

I shook my head and spoke without moving my lips.  “I think he saw an opportunity with Fatima away and he made a move.  His arrangement with the warlords to provide fresh soldiers ended as soon as the slavers showed up to get rid of evidence.”

Devlin picked up the thread of my thoughts, so seamlessly that he might have been reading my mind in real-time.  “If he couldn’t make a deal with the new guys – and they were as likely to add him to the shipment, just for knowing about them – then he had to seize power now, while there was still power worth taking.”

So he got lucky?” Mila asked.

Not lucky,” Fatima said.  “We came back.  He did not expect this.”

As one, I turned with the rest of the adults to regard Fatima.  For someone who’d had power stolen from underneath them, she seemed entirely too calm.  Mamoud had tried, indirectly, to kill her only hours before.  Now he had the Rubbish Throne and the loyalty, however reluctant, of the main body of Urchins.  He could give the order to submit her to any number of indignities and there was little she could do stop it.

But I wouldn’t have known that from her expression or her bearing.  She waited in silence, daring Mamoud to speak.  A little bit of her confidence trickled into the rest of the Urchins standing near us.  Unconsciously, I found myself mimicking her and I noticed Devlin and Michel doing similar things.  For her part, Mila appeared conflicted.  She still held a trove of weapons and the Urchins with weapons carried clubs, knives, and broken bottles.  If things got bad, she could get us out of the basement, but at what cost to her psyche?

Mamoud broke under the tension first.  He turned his head slightly and spoke several sentences in Arabic.  The Urchin who’d fled at the first sight of our ragtag band stood next to him.   That boy listened to Mamoud’s words, nodded once, and then called out in a weak, quavering voice across the suddenly hushed horde.

Your deal with Farrad,” the boy said, “is over.”

It took me a moment to realize that he was only translating for Mamoud.  I wondered why the boy was going through the trouble.  Both he and Fatima spoke Arabic; for that matter, I was fairly certain that most of the Urchins spoke that language.  Using English didn’t make sense, unless…

He’s afraid,” Devlin said.

I fought back the urge to swat at him for stealing my thunder.  “He doesn’t want us to get involved, so he’s making this show for our benefit,” I finished.  “If we leave, he’s positive he can handle Fatima and the Urchins we saved on his own.”

Shame we aren’t going anywhere,” Mila said.  She cracked her knuckles, one at a time, and moved her free hand closer to the bag of weapons slung across her chest.

Fatima held up a tiny hand.  She didn’t even face Mila when she did it, but the gesture did its job.  Mila stopped moving. 

No,” Fatima said.  “This is not your fight.  I will take care of this.”

I do not mean any offense,” Michel said, “but you are outnumbered.  We are outnumbered.  If Mamoud decides that he wants to hurt you, then…”

He will not,” Fatima responded.  Again, I was struck with her absolute, unshakeable confidence.  “Hisein?”

The scarred boy practically hopped forward.  “What do you need?”

Translation,” she said.  “It is as important that our new friends understand this as it is for our family to know what has been done.”

Hisein hesitated for only a moment before he nodded.

Fatima took a step forward.  The crowd of Urchins – every single one of them occupying the space where her foot would have fallen – took an equal step back.

She raised her voice and, despite the fact that a child her size couldn’t possibly have much in the way of lung capacity, her words carried as well as Mamoud’s had.

Then we will make a new deal,” Fatima called out.

Mila, stay ready,” Devlin murmured.  “I don’t know what she’s got in his mind, but one way or another…this is going to be a hell of a show.”

Chapter 26

Michel, I need you to get us closer to him,” I said.  As I spoke, I gripped a conveniently placed pole with both of my hands.  “Close enough for him to hear us, okay?”

Michel spared a moment to glance up at me.  “With all of this happening, I do not know if I can get that close, Sarah.”

You’re going to have to do it anyway.  Figure something out.  I’m not worried about collateral damage and the slavers are taking their own lives in their hands at this point.”

He started to protest but stopped when he saw something in my expression.  Instead, he nodded twice, tightened his grip on the steering wheel, and pressed down hard on the accelerator.

The Urchins were huddling together for warmth and safety in the rear of the bus.  They were talking to each other in furtive whispers.  The anxiety in the air was so thick that I could almost feel it against my skin and no small part of that tension came from me, personally.  Fatima was doing her best to keep the Urchins from completely breaking, but their eventual panic had become an inevitable fact, instead of an unfortunate possibility.  As we drove directly into the fray, it was only a matter of time before Fatima’s grasp over the general mood faltered.  When that happened, there wouldn’t be anything keeping the assorted boys and girls from dissolving into chaos, which would distract Michel, Mila, and myself when our attention desperately needed to be focused on Devlin and Hisein.

I could have sworn there was a clock ticking in my head, ominous and drawing nearer, like the crocodile from Peter Pan.  “Mila, can you do anything about them? Maybe give us some room to work?”

Mila crouched a little and stepped closer to the bus’ front window.  “Nothing for sure,” she said after a few heartbeats.  “They aren’t shooting at him yet, for some reason, but that’s not going to hold up forever.  If Michel can get me into a position where I’ve got a few of those ATVs behind us, I could probably slow them down.  Might be able to take a few down permanently, but I can’t say for sure.”

Michel made a little sound of distress.  I understood that one perfectly.  Between my demands and Mila’s observations, we’d put two impossible requests squarely on his shoulders and it was perfectly clear what would happen if either request wasn’t granted.  His grip on the wheel grew even tighter and I could hear the leather creak under the pressure. 

Get back into position,” I told Mila.  “If you see an opportunity to open up a little room, take it.  Even if you can’t hit one of the ATVs, you might be able to throw up some obstacles for them?  They’ve got to swerve around walls and the like; we’ve got enough mass to just blast through.”

I can’t shoot a wall at them,” Mila said, then paused.  “But I could drop a wall or two in their path, actually.  With a little luck…”

She trailed off – or, more accurately, I tuned her out – and my attention went back to the scene in front of us.  I lacked Devlin’s intuitive eye for disorder, so the pack of vehicles didn’t seem to have any rhyme or reason.  Devlin’s bus swerved wildly in one direction or another, colliding with and bulldozing through low walls as they got in his way.   Some of the ATVs buzzed after him, following in the path he made through the debris, while others rushed in front of him and closed off paths he might have taken. 

They were herding him, I realized.  The gunmen weren’t firing because…because…why weren’t they shooting at him?  Some of the ATVs had drawn close enough for a clear shot at the tires.  Even if the slavers had been forced to shoot from a greater distance, they had submachine guns and, presumably, enough ammunition that eventually someone would hit a target the size of a small elephant.  What were the slavers playing at?  What was their game?

I couldn’t spend time worrying about that.  When we were safely back at the bed and breakfast, Devlin and I could sit down at a table and dissect every incongruous detail from this catastrophically failed incursion.  Right now, I needed to focus on making sure that we actually made it back to the bed and breakfast in the first place: Devlin, Mila, Michel, Fatima, Hisein, and all of the other Urchins included.

Michel wove a path through the streets, attempting to avoid any large pieces of debris that might have stalled us.  It was easier to follow Devlin than I would have thought; by simply plowing through obstacles, he’d left us a path as well.  Of the seven ATVs, one or two or the rear-mounted gunmen turned around at the sound of our approach.  Their surprise was palpable, even from a distance.  They raised their hands to their eyes, squinting to see if the bus was being driven by one of their own number or an outside interloper.  They were so curious and confused by the sudden arrival of a second bus that they didn’t react to Michel’s impersonation of a bull in a china shop until it was too late.

The back two ATVs turned away, each headed in a different direction, a second before the front of the bus would have collided with them.  The ATV on the left went down the mouth of an alley, but the rightmost vehicle didn’t have such luck.  A broken piece of lumber, roughly the size of an aggressive speed bump, cost him a little bit of momentum.  Michel clipped the rear of the ATV at speed, pushing it over the makeshift speed bump and crumpling both tires on one side underneath the vehicle.  Both the gunmen and the driver made it off before any limbs could be broken, but they were effectively out of commission, no matter how personally healthy they might still be.

Two down,” Mila called from the rear of the bus.  I looked back and saw her flashing a fierce grin in Michel’s direction, her hair pulled free of its ponytail and blowing wildly as we raced through the shanty town.  “Twelve more to go!”

I tried to find the same glee in the situation, but couldn’t quite pull it off.  There was still that current of adrenaline in my blood, both exhilarating and sickening at the same time, but it was starting to wear me out.  My vision was getting hazy around the edges and my knees felt weak.  If I hadn’t been holding onto the pole with a death grip, I suspected that there’d be a noticeable tremor in my hands.

Ahead of us, Devlin’s bus turned sharply to the left.  A pack of ATVs peeled away in response to the change in direction, and created a gap just barely wide enough for Michel to squeeze into.

This as close as I can get!”  I was right next to Michel, but the combined noises of both buses; the high pitched whine of the ATVs; the murmurs of the Urchins, which were quickly moving from soft voices to louder outcries of alarm, and the pounding of my own heart in my ears, I wouldn’t have heard him, if he hadn’t yelled.

It wasn’t as close to Devlin’s bus as I would have liked, but it would have to do.  I gestured at the door and Michel reached out to pull a lever.  The door folded in, allowing a rush of air to blow past me and back into the main cabin of the bus.

I could see him, through the mist of splintered wood and thickening smoke.  Devlin was behind the wheel of the bus, smiling as wide as he could.  His wide eyes frantically darted from left to right, taking in the field in front of him and deciding how to maneuver the bus in split-second increments.  Next to him, less visible because of the distance and the caked grime on the window, Hisein sat.  He didn’t wear the same smile as Devlin.  In fact, judging from what little I knew of body language and the scant amount I could make out as we sped through the shanty town, the poor boy was absolutely terrified.  His shoulders were high and pulled in close to his body; his head was ducked down so that he his chin touched his sternum.  His hands were out of my line of vision, but I suspected he was gripping the seat cushion for dear life.

Devlin!” I screamed as loud as possible, willing all of my adrenaline and fear into my voice.  “Devlin, look at me!”

I had to repeat myself twice and wave my arms frantically above my head before he took notice.  He must have put himself into that mysterious zone of his, if he hadn’t immediately noticed the presence of another bus speeding alongside him.  He mouthed something to me that I didn’t quite catch and stabbed two fingers to his right, then behind him. 

The gesture was clear enough, even if I couldn’t make out the words themselves.  “I know!  There are more of them coming!”  I over enunciated every word. Devlin was a better lip reader than me.  What he couldn’t hear or read, he’d have to pick up by intuition.  “We need a roadblock!”

He tilted his head, not understanding my intentions in the moment.  I started to repeat myself, but he turned suddenly to the right, then back to the left again.  A loud crunching sound, followed by a softer shout, came from behind us.

Ten left!” Mila yelled. 

I didn’t bother to look behind us to see what had happened.  While speaking to me – or, well, while attempting to communicate with me, even if speech wasn’t really on the table – Devlin must have noticed one of the ATVs drawing closer.  Instead of alerting the slaver and his passenger to his intention, he’d abruptly allowed him to get close enough to use a quick fishtail as a crude, but effective bludgeoning instrument.  It was similar to what Michel had done, only moments before.

Devlin hadn’t been driving like that when we’d first seen him.  Had he noticed Michel’s maneuver subconsciously and adapted it to his own purposes thatquickly?

I shook my head fiercely, clearing away any questions that popped up.  I needed to be present now

We need a roadblock!” I repeated, when Devlin pulled up next to up again.  If we continued on this street, we didn’t have much shanty town left before we entered the city of Tangiers proper.  “Do you understand?”

Devlin shook his head and lifted one hand, palm up: the universal sign of what are you talking about?

A roadblock!  A…”  I struggled to think of the appropriate way to convey my message, without reliance on too many polysyllabic words.  Irritation mingled with adrenaline and a surge of other unnamed emotions and I just spat out the words with an accompanying gesture.   “Flip the bus, Devlin!  You need to flip…the…bus!

I extended one hand, palm down, then sharply reversed its orientation.  I had to do that two more times, growing more and more anxious, before Devlin got it.

You want him to do what?” Michel asked.  His attention was split now between the road ahead of us and the rearview mirror.  I didn’t have the best angle on that mirror, but even I could see that the slavers were marshalling their forces.  They knew as well as we did that this chase couldn’t go into the city proper.  I saw one of the ATV’s passengers, closer than the rest, give his submachine gun a few moments of intense consideration.

He needs to flip the bus,” I said.  My mind wasn’t quite on the question.  I was calculating distances and speeds, adjusting for variables, and trying to remember what little physics I’d bothered learning in college.  “They’ve got more mobility and they outnumber us, but we don’t need to beat them.  All we need to do is get away and Tangiers is just the place to do it.”

You want to drive this,” Michel said, “into the city?”

What I want is to trap the slavers in the shanty town or at least to give us a good head start on them.  They’re here to get rid of evidence and clear the area; they aren’t going to want to start a fight in the city center anymore than we do.  If we can manage to get somewhere with people and lights – lots of people and lights – I’m betting they cut their losses and start looking for easier targets.”

I succeeded into lacing my little speech with more faith than I actually possessed.  The slavers might have orders to eliminate or otherwise deal with the Urchins, witnesses be damned.  They could have their tendrils in the local law enforcement, who might turn a conveniently blind eye to anything that happened at the shanty town’s borders.  There might be more of them than we knew about – there almost certainly were, even if the rest of their ranks were out of sight – and a trap could be waiting to spring on us, just before we could reach freedom.

Or a million other more mundane problems could spring up at the last instant.  Devlin could run out of gas, blow a tire, or his engine could throw a rod.  Michel’s impressive skills could fail us at a critical moment.  The Urchins could snap under the pressure and throw a wrench into the works of a plan that depended on absolute perfection. 

I could be wrong.  I could be horribly wrong and the price of my miscalculation, of my overconfidence, would be absolute failure.

Acting, and failing, was still better than not acting at all.  I’d learned that much from my time with Devlin. 

Get into position,” I said, surprised at the steadiness of my voice.  “It’s going to be close.”

There was no way to convey to Devlin how thin the margin of success was.  In my head, he and Hisein would flip the bus at the critical moment, when the circling ATVs weren’t prepared for such a drastic technique.  If he braced himself just right, they’d be able to escape the crash with a minimum of injury.  In the short period of time after the deliberate over-balancing and before the slavers recovered their wits, we’d have to scoop Devlin and Hisein up and evacuate the scene. The wreckage we’d leave in our wake would have to be sufficient to stall them while we made like tall rabbits for safety.

Almost immediately, things went awry.  I’d been hoping for a few yards of space in either direction, so that Michel could pull around Devlin’s bus before it went sideways.  The arrival of two more ATVs, complete with the requisite gunmen riding butch, peeled out in front of both buses.  Devlin spun the wheel, so that his bus pulled away from ours, at the exact moment that one of the gunman decided to open fire.  A rapid burst of gunfire came from the boxy weapon in his hands, kicking up shards of wood and paper into the air.

I sucked in a sharp breath.  For an instant, my mind froze and my thoughts locked up.  Michel turned, looked over his shoulder at Mila, and nodded as some unspoken message passed between them. 

Fatima,” Mila said, “your friends are going to have to get a good grip on something and now.”  She knelt down and began to feverishly dig through the bag.

Fatima didn’t waste time asking questions.  She pointed at her honor guard and barked out orders.  Where she’d been soothing and comforting before, the Arabic came out sharp and forceful now.  The bigger boys leaped to do her bidding, crowding the younger and more impressionable Urchins against the walls where they could dig their hands into barely-there handholds.

Michel pulled our bus around, wide, and sped after Devlin.  At this angle, we were on a near collision course.  We’d only just barely scrape by. 

What are you –“

I didn’t get to finish the question.  Mila pulled her head out of the bag, clutching two objects about the size of large apples.  Michel pulled the bus up alongside Devlin and held there.  Behind us, the two newcomers and a large contingent of the forces we hadn’t yet dealt with drew closer still.  I realized that I was holding my breath but could not, for the life of me, manage to remember exactly how to exhale.

The lead gunmen raised their guns and pointed them straight through the open emergency exit.  From this angle, I couldn’t see Mila’s eyes, but I could track the motion of her head.  She focused on the ATVs, said something in a voice that the rush of air whipped away from my ears, and then turned to the side.  She looked directly at a ramshackle building, constructed more from litter than lumber, and threw one of the apple-sized grenades directly at its base.

It went off just before it reached the ground, blowing out the base of the wall in a blast of force.  If the explosion had taken place any higher, the wall would have fallen backwards, away from the pursuing riders.  But she’d picked the perfect moment and, instead of clearing a path for the ATVs, the wall fell precisely in their way.  At their speed, the lead vehicles didn’t have a hope of dodging to either side and their riders went flying over the handlebars the instant their front wheels touched rocky, uneven ground.  The rest of the pack was forced to slow down, so that they could find other routes that weren’t so treacherous.

You’re up!” Mila yelled.

Michel took his cue and stood – literally stood – and forced another few miles per hour out of the beleaguered bus.  I hadn’t noticed the sound of its grinding engine earlier, caught in the heat of the moment, but I couldn’t seem to hear anything else right now.  Still, Michel demanded more speed and the bus gave it to him.  He pulled ahead of Devlin, then turned so that both vehicles formed a straight line.

Mila waved one arm frantically, gesturing for Devlin to move.  He ducked out of view, followed quickly by Hisein, just before Mila picked back up the assault rifle and sent a burst of gunfire straight through the bus’ front window.  It splintered, cracked, and then finally shattered completely. 

Hurry up!”

Devlin seemed to intuitively grasp Mila’s meaning.  As he helped Hisein to his feet, Michel gradually decelerated.  The two buses bumped into each other, our vehicle’s emergency exit door scraping against the remaining metal of the other’s window frame with an ear-splitting screech.

Hisein searched the crowd of Urchins – all of whom who had now lapsed completely into a state of dumb wonder – for Fatima’s face.  He found her, standing next to me, and steeled himself.  Then, he leaped from one bus to the other.  Mila caught him with one arm and helped to steady him.  When he had his footing, Mila pushed him behind her and held out a hand to Devlin.

He hesitated.  The whining engines of the ATVs were getting closer again behind us and, ahead of us, I could see lights.  The sun was rising, yes, but not all of Tangiers’ evening lights had been switched off yet.

Hurry up!” Mila yelled.

Devlin took off his belt and wound it through the steering wheel, gripping one end in a tightly clenched fist.  He took stock of himself once more, backed up slightly, and gave himself a running start before he jumped over the gap.

The belt went taut, then pulled against the steering wheel when Devlin was still airborne.  It turned sharply – too sharply – to one side.  The bus had held together under considerable stress, but this last violent wrenching proved to be one insult too many.  Its tires locked up, forcing the bus to turn from parallel to ours until it was perpendicular.  Then, with a groan and a towering crash, it flipped over.

Momentum kept the fallen bus from stopping completely, but we had actual impetus on our side.  As Devlin’s stolen vehicle fell, sliding through buildings and losing a little bit of speed with each individual impact, we gained distance.  The whine of the ATVs slowed, then stopped, as they realized there was no way around this new obstacle in anything resembling decent time.  Besides, the sun was almost up.  We’d made it out of the shanty town, or near enough that it was indistinguishable.  They’d lost the chase.

Devlin fell to his knees, gasping greedily for oxygen, as soon as we were clear.  I started to push my way through the crowd of Urchins who, understandably, were very interested in Hisein and Fatima at the moment.  Mila helped Devlin to his feet and he wiped a river of sweat from his forehead.

Then he smiled at me.  “Fancy meeting you here,” he said.  “Mind if I catch a ride?”

If it hadn’t been for Mila, I would’ve slapped the grin off of his face.  

Michel, I need you to get us closer to him,” I said.  As I spoke, I gripped a conveniently placed pole with both of my hands.  “Close enough for him to hear us, okay?”

Michel spared a moment to glance up at me.  “With all of this happening, I do not know if I can get that close, Sarah.”

You’re going to have to do it anyway.  Figure something out.  I’m not worried about collateral damage and the slavers are taking their own lives in their hands at this point.”

He started to protest but stopped when he saw something in my expression.  Instead, he nodded twice, tightened his grip on the steering wheel, and pressed down hard on the accelerator.

The Urchins were huddling together for warmth and safety in the rear of the bus.  They were talking to each other in furtive whispers.  The anxiety in the air was so thick that I could almost feel it against my skin and no small part of that tension came from me, personally.  Fatima was doing her best to keep the Urchins from completely breaking, but their eventual panic had become an inevitable fact, instead of an unfortunate possibility.  As we drove directly into the fray, it was only a matter of time before Fatima’s grasp over the general mood faltered.  When that happened, there wouldn’t be anything keeping the assorted boys and girls from dissolving into chaos, which would distract Michel, Mila, and myself when our attention desperately needed to be focused on Devlin and Hisein.

I could have sworn there was a clock ticking in my head, ominous and drawing nearer, like the crocodile from Peter Pan.  “Mila, can you do anything about them? Maybe give us some room to work?”

Mila crouched a little and stepped closer to the bus’ front window.  “Nothing for sure,” she said after a few heartbeats.  “They aren’t shooting at him yet, for some reason, but that’s not going to hold up forever.  If Michel can get me into a position where I’ve got a few of those ATVs behind us, I could probably slow them down.  Might be able to take a few down permanently, but I can’t say for sure.”

Michel made a little sound of distress.  I understood that one perfectly.  Between my demands and Mila’s observations, we’d put two impossible requests squarely on his shoulders and it was perfectly clear what would happen if either request wasn’t granted.  His grip on the wheel grew even tighter and I could hear the leather creak under the pressure. 

Get back into position,” I told Mila.  “If you see an opportunity to open up a little room, take it.  Even if you can’t hit one of the ATVs, you might be able to throw up some obstacles for them?  They’ve got to swerve around walls and the like; we’ve got enough mass to just blast through.”

I can’t shoot a wall at them,” Mila said, then paused.  “But I could drop a wall or two in their path, actually.  With a little luck…”

She trailed off – or, more accurately, I tuned her out – and my attention went back to the scene in front of us.  I lacked Devlin’s intuitive eye for disorder, so the pack of vehicles didn’t seem to have any rhyme or reason.  Devlin’s bus swerved wildly in one direction or another, colliding with and bulldozing through low walls as they got in his way.   Some of the ATVs buzzed after him, following in the path he made through the debris, while others rushed in front of him and closed off paths he might have taken. 

They were herding him, I realized.  The gunmen weren’t firing because…because…why weren’t they shooting at him?  Some of the ATVs had drawn close enough for a clear shot at the tires.  Even if the slavers had been forced to shoot from a greater distance, they had submachine guns and, presumably, enough ammunition that eventually someone would hit a target the size of a small elephant.  What were the slavers playing at?  What was their game?

I couldn’t spend time worrying about that.  When we were safely back at the bed and breakfast, Devlin and I could sit down at a table and dissect every incongruous detail from this catastrophically failed incursion.  Right now, I needed to focus on making sure that we actually made it back to the bed and breakfast in the first place: Devlin, Mila, Michel, Fatima, Hisein, and all of the other Urchins included.

Michel wove a path through the streets, attempting to avoid any large pieces of debris that might have stalled us.  It was easier to follow Devlin than I would have thought; by simply plowing through obstacles, he’d left us a path as well.  Of the seven ATVs, one or two or the rear-mounted gunmen turned around at the sound of our approach.  Their surprise was palpable, even from a distance.  They raised their hands to their eyes, squinting to see if the bus was being driven by one of their own number or an outside interloper.  They were so curious and confused by the sudden arrival of a second bus that they didn’t react to Michel’s impersonation of a bull in a china shop until it was too late.

The back two ATVs turned away, each headed in a different direction, a second before the front of the bus would have collided with them.  The ATV on the left went down the mouth of an alley, but the rightmost vehicle didn’t have such luck.  A broken piece of lumber, roughly the size of an aggressive speed bump, cost him a little bit of momentum.  Michel clipped the rear of the ATV at speed, pushing it over the makeshift speed bump and crumpling both tires on one side underneath the vehicle.  Both the gunmen and the driver made it off before any limbs could be broken, but they were effectively out of commission, no matter how personally healthy they might still be.

Two down,” Mila called from the rear of the bus.  I looked back and saw her flashing a fierce grin in Michel’s direction, her hair pulled free of its ponytail and blowing wildly as we raced through the shanty town.  “Twelve more to go!”

I tried to find the same glee in the situation, but couldn’t quite pull it off.  There was still that current of adrenaline in my blood, both exhilarating and sickening at the same time, but it was starting to wear me out.  My vision was getting hazy around the edges and my knees felt weak.  If I hadn’t been holding onto the pole with a death grip, I suspected that there’d be a noticeable tremor in my hands.

Ahead of us, Devlin’s bus turned sharply to the left.  A pack of ATVs peeled away in response to the change in direction, and created a gap just barely wide enough for Michel to squeeze into.

This as close as I can get!”  I was right next to Michel, but the combined noises of both buses; the high pitched whine of the ATVs; the murmurs of the Urchins, which were quickly moving from soft voices to louder outcries of alarm, and the pounding of my own heart in my ears, I wouldn’t have heard him, if he hadn’t yelled.

It wasn’t as close to Devlin’s bus as I would have liked, but it would have to do.  I gestured at the door and Michel reached out to pull a lever.  The door folded in, allowing a rush of air to blow past me and back into the main cabin of the bus.

I could see him, through the mist of splintered wood and thickening smoke.  Devlin was behind the wheel of the bus, smiling as wide as he could.  His wide eyes frantically darted from left to right, taking in the field in front of him and deciding how to maneuver the bus in split-second increments.  Next to him, less visible because of the distance and the caked grime on the window, Hisein sat.  He didn’t wear the same smile as Devlin.  In fact, judging from what little I knew of body language and the scant amount I could make out as we sped through the shanty town, the poor boy was absolutely terrified.  His shoulders were high and pulled in close to his body; his head was ducked down so that he his chin touched his sternum.  His hands were out of my line of vision, but I suspected he was gripping the seat cushion for dear life.

Devlin!” I screamed as loud as possible, willing all of my adrenaline and fear into my voice.  “Devlin, look at me!”

I had to repeat myself twice and wave my arms frantically above my head before he took notice.  He must have put himself into that mysterious zone of his, if he hadn’t immediately noticed the presence of another bus speeding alongside him.  He mouthed something to me that I didn’t quite catch and stabbed two fingers to his right, then behind him. 

The gesture was clear enough, even if I couldn’t make out the words themselves.  “I know!  There are more of them coming!”  I over enunciated every word. Devlin was a better lip reader than me.  What he couldn’t hear or read, he’d have to pick up by intuition.  “We need a roadblock!”

He tilted his head, not understanding my intentions in the moment.  I started to repeat myself, but he turned suddenly to the right, then back to the left again.  A loud crunching sound, followed by a softer shout, came from behind us.

Ten left!” Mila yelled. 

I didn’t bother to look behind us to see what had happened.  While speaking to me – or, well, while attempting to communicate with me, even if speech wasn’t really on the table – Devlin must have noticed one of the ATVs drawing closer.  Instead of alerting the slaver and his passenger to his intention, he’d abruptly allowed him to get close enough to use a quick fishtail as a crude, but effective bludgeoning instrument.  It was similar to what Michel had done, only moments before.

Devlin hadn’t been driving like that when we’d first seen him.  Had he noticed Michel’s maneuver subconsciously and adapted it to his own purposes thatquickly?

I shook my head fiercely, clearing away any questions that popped up.  I needed to be present now

We need a roadblock!” I repeated, when Devlin pulled up next to up again.  If we continued on this street, we didn’t have much shanty town left before we entered the city of Tangiers proper.  “Do you understand?”

Devlin shook his head and lifted one hand, palm up: the universal sign of what are you talking about?

A roadblock!  A…”  I struggled to think of the appropriate way to convey my message, without reliance on too many polysyllabic words.  Irritation mingled with adrenaline and a surge of other unnamed emotions and I just spat out the words with an accompanying gesture.   “Flip the bus, Devlin!  You need to flip…the…bus!

I extended one hand, palm down, then sharply reversed its orientation.  I had to do that two more times, growing more and more anxious, before Devlin got it.

You want him to do what?” Michel asked.  His attention was split now between the road ahead of us and the rearview mirror.  I didn’t have the best angle on that mirror, but even I could see that the slavers were marshalling their forces.  They knew as well as we did that this chase couldn’t go into the city proper.  I saw one of the ATV’s passengers, closer than the rest, give his submachine gun a few moments of intense consideration.

He needs to flip the bus,” I said.  My mind wasn’t quite on the question.  I was calculating distances and speeds, adjusting for variables, and trying to remember what little physics I’d bothered learning in college.  “They’ve got more mobility and they outnumber us, but we don’t need to beat them.  All we need to do is get away and Tangiers is just the place to do it.”

You want to drive this,” Michel said, “into the city?”

What I want is to trap the slavers in the shanty town or at least to give us a good head start on them.  They’re here to get rid of evidence and clear the area; they aren’t going to want to start a fight in the city center anymore than we do.  If we can manage to get somewhere with people and lights – lots of people and lights – I’m betting they cut their losses and start looking for easier targets.”

I succeeded into lacing my little speech with more faith than I actually possessed.  The slavers might have orders to eliminate or otherwise deal with the Urchins, witnesses be damned.  They could have their tendrils in the local law enforcement, who might turn a conveniently blind eye to anything that happened at the shanty town’s borders.  There might be more of them than we knew about – there almost certainly were, even if the rest of their ranks were out of sight – and a trap could be waiting to spring on us, just before we could reach freedom.

Or a million other more mundane problems could spring up at the last instant.  Devlin could run out of gas, blow a tire, or his engine could throw a rod.  Michel’s impressive skills could fail us at a critical moment.  The Urchins could snap under the pressure and throw a wrench into the works of a plan that depended on absolute perfection. 

I could be wrong.  I could be horribly wrong and the price of my miscalculation, of my overconfidence, would be absolute failure.

Acting, and failing, was still better than not acting at all.  I’d learned that much from my time with Devlin. 

Get into position,” I said, surprised at the steadiness of my voice.  “It’s going to be close.”

There was no way to convey to Devlin how thin the margin of success was.  In my head, he and Hisein would flip the bus at the critical moment, when the circling ATVs weren’t prepared for such a drastic technique.  If he braced himself just right, they’d be able to escape the crash with a minimum of injury.  In the short period of time after the deliberate over-balancing and before the slavers recovered their wits, we’d have to scoop Devlin and Hisein up and evacuate the scene. The wreckage we’d leave in our wake would have to be sufficient to stall them while we made like tall rabbits for safety.

Almost immediately, things went awry.  I’d been hoping for a few yards of space in either direction, so that Michel could pull around Devlin’s bus before it went sideways.  The arrival of two more ATVs, complete with the requisite gunmen riding butch, peeled out in front of both buses.  Devlin spun the wheel, so that his bus pulled away from ours, at the exact moment that one of the gunman decided to open fire.  A rapid burst of gunfire came from the boxy weapon in his hands, kicking up shards of wood and paper into the air.

I sucked in a sharp breath.  For an instant, my mind froze and my thoughts locked up.  Michel turned, looked over his shoulder at Mila, and nodded as some unspoken message passed between them. 

Fatima,” Mila said, “your friends are going to have to get a good grip on something and now.”  She knelt down and began to feverishly dig through the bag.

Fatima didn’t waste time asking questions.  She pointed at her honor guard and barked out orders.  Where she’d been soothing and comforting before, the Arabic came out sharp and forceful now.  The bigger boys leaped to do her bidding, crowding the younger and more impressionable Urchins against the walls where they could dig their hands into barely-there handholds.

Michel pulled our bus around, wide, and sped after Devlin.  At this angle, we were on a near collision course.  We’d only just barely scrape by. 

What are you –“

I didn’t get to finish the question.  Mila pulled her head out of the bag, clutching two objects about the size of large apples.  Michel pulled the bus up alongside Devlin and held there.  Behind us, the two newcomers and a large contingent of the forces we hadn’t yet dealt with drew closer still.  I realized that I was holding my breath but could not, for the life of me, manage to remember exactly how to exhale.

The lead gunmen raised their guns and pointed them straight through the open emergency exit.  From this angle, I couldn’t see Mila’s eyes, but I could track the motion of her head.  She focused on the ATVs, said something in a voice that the rush of air whipped away from my ears, and then turned to the side.  She looked directly at a ramshackle building, constructed more from litter than lumber, and threw one of the apple-sized grenades directly at its base.

It went off just before it reached the ground, blowing out the base of the wall in a blast of force.  If the explosion had taken place any higher, the wall would have fallen backwards, away from the pursuing riders.  But she’d picked the perfect moment and, instead of clearing a path for the ATVs, the wall fell precisely in their way.  At their speed, the lead vehicles didn’t have a hope of dodging to either side and their riders went flying over the handlebars the instant their front wheels touched rocky, uneven ground.  The rest of the pack was forced to slow down, so that they could find other routes that weren’t so treacherous.

You’re up!” Mila yelled.

Michel took his cue and stood – literally stood – and forced another few miles per hour out of the beleaguered bus.  I hadn’t noticed the sound of its grinding engine earlier, caught in the heat of the moment, but I couldn’t seem to hear anything else right now.  Still, Michel demanded more speed and the bus gave it to him.  He pulled ahead of Devlin, then turned so that both vehicles formed a straight line.

Mila waved one arm frantically, gesturing for Devlin to move.  He ducked out of view, followed quickly by Hisein, just before Mila picked back up the assault rifle and sent a burst of gunfire straight through the bus’ front window.  It splintered, cracked, and then finally shattered completely. 

Hurry up!”

Devlin seemed to intuitively grasp Mila’s meaning.  As he helped Hisein to his feet, Michel gradually decelerated.  The two buses bumped into each other, our vehicle’s emergency exit door scraping against the remaining metal of the other’s window frame with an ear-splitting screech.

Hisein searched the crowd of Urchins – all of whom who had now lapsed completely into a state of dumb wonder – for Fatima’s face.  He found her, standing next to me, and steeled himself.  Then, he leaped from one bus to the other.  Mila caught him with one arm and helped to steady him.  When he had his footing, Mila pushed him behind her and held out a hand to Devlin.

He hesitated.  The whining engines of the ATVs were getting closer again behind us and, ahead of us, I could see lights.  The sun was rising, yes, but not all of Tangiers’ evening lights had been switched off yet.

Hurry up!” Mila yelled.

Devlin took off his belt and wound it through the steering wheel, gripping one end in a tightly clenched fist.  He took stock of himself once more, backed up slightly, and gave himself a running start before he jumped over the gap.

The belt went taut, then pulled against the steering wheel when Devlin was still airborne.  It turned sharply – too sharply – to one side.  The bus had held together under considerable stress, but this last violent wrenching proved to be one insult too many.  Its tires locked up, forcing the bus to turn from parallel to ours until it was perpendicular.  Then, with a groan and a towering crash, it flipped over.

Momentum kept the fallen bus from stopping completely, but we had actual impetus on our side.  As Devlin’s stolen vehicle fell, sliding through buildings and losing a little bit of speed with each individual impact, we gained distance.  The whine of the ATVs slowed, then stopped, as they realized there was no way around this new obstacle in anything resembling decent time.  Besides, the sun was almost up.  We’d made it out of the shanty town, or near enough that it was indistinguishable.  They’d lost the chase.

Devlin fell to his knees, gasping greedily for oxygen, as soon as we were clear.  I started to push my way through the crowd of Urchins who, understandably, were very interested in Hisein and Fatima at the moment.  Mila helped Devlin to his feet and he wiped a river of sweat from his forehead.

Then he smiled at me.  “Fancy meeting you here,” he said.  “Mind if I catch a ride?”

If it hadn’t been for Mila, I would’ve slapped the grin off of his face.  

Maybe.

Maybe.

Chapter 25

Fatima’s control over the other Urchins was impressive to behold.  She rarely had to speak, preferring instead to communicate her wishes with the occasional gestures.  When she pointed, one of the boys – I couldn’t help but think of them as some sort of juvenile honor guard – stepped in to enforce her will on the milling children, like humanoid sheep dogs.  They kept the group hemmed in on all sides, provided enough comforting muscle mass to keep a mass panic from breaking out, and herded the Urchins off of the street and in through the back of the remaining bus. 

It didn’t take long for the Urchins to pile themselves into the rear of the bus.  The slavers had brought two vehicles, most likely intending to split the children evenly between both, but they managed – with a great deal of pushing, shoving, grunting, and other sounds of discomfort – to squeeze into the available space. Somehow, they even managed to leave enough room for Michel, Mila, and I to settle in without elbows or knees bumping into us every few seconds.  They’d also pushed Fatima to the front of the crowd, so that she could speak directly to us without having to raise her voice.  Her position wasn’t as roomy as those of my team, but it was a premium space.  I wondered if she’d requested it or if they’d specifically forced it on her.  The truth, I suspected, probably lay somewhere in the middle.

There wasn’t time to marvel over the industriousness of the Urchins.  It took maybe four minutes to everyone in place and, in those scant four minutes, the situation with Devlin, Hisein, and their borrowed bus had descended into brand new levels of madness.  The slavers, as it turned out, hadn’t only arrived with oversized vehicles, perfect to stuff kidnapped children into.  They’d brought ATVs, as well.  Through the front window, I counted at least four – no, five – different ATVs skidding out into the streets from places of concealment off of the main pathway.  Two men rode on each squat vehicles: one handled the steering while the other stood straight up on the back wheel coverings and looked out over his partner.  They were all carrying short, boxy guns, either in their hands or on their hips.

Mila squinted, leaned forward, and then cursed under her breath.  “Submachine guns,” she said, in answer to the question I hadn’t quite been able to finish forming.  “There’s no reason why they should have even brought anything like those to this.”

No kill,” I said, “like overkill.  If we’re right, and these slavers were sent here to erase the Magi’s presence and deal with any possible intrusions from our friendly neighborhood group of thieves, then it makes sense they’d come absolutely loaded for bear.  Remember, as far as they know, there could be forty of us, just waiting in the shadows to spring an ambush.”

I wish there were forty of us,” Mila said.

Without planning it, both of us turned and angled our heads down slightly.  Fatima’s upper body extended out from the mass of Urchins.  “What are you going to do?”

Admitting that I had absolutely no idea what my next move should be wouldn’t be good for morale.  Mila was generally fatalistic enough that it wouldn’t bother her and Michel maintained a seemingly unbreakable positive attitude.  Fatima, though, was an unknown factor.  She’d dealt well with things so far, which was admirable, but it was hardly the same as a proven iron will.  I knew, with absolute certainty, that a loss of composure on her part would be the first domino in a general riot.  She’d start to grow nervous, followed by the muscular boys who served as her honor guard, and that mood would spread to the Urchins at large. 

I had enough problems without deliberately drumming up new issues to deal with.

Devlin and Hisein have a head start,” I said, speaking words at the very instant they appeared in my mind.  “And the ATVs will deal with this road decently well, but they’re sacrificing speed to do it.  If he can stay ahead of them, then that gives us a few seconds to think.”

Can he stay ahead of them?” Fatima asked.

In the surge of activity, I’d forgotten that most obvious step.   The communications tablet was on the floor at my feet.  I retrieved it, pressed the relevant buttons to connect my earbud with Devlin’s and waited.  I heard nothing…although, ‘nothing’ wasn’t quite an accurate description.  There was a faint, distant sound of static coming from Devlin’s end of the connection. 

Shit,” I said, cutting the line and returning my attention to my immediate surroundings.

What’s wrong?” Mila asked immediately.

His earbud’s…broken, I guess?  Or he lost it somehow?  I’m not sure, but the punchline is that I can’t even talk to him.”

That means,” Michel said, “that we have to go and rescue him right now, doesn’t it?”

I nodded.  “We won’t know if they’re having bus trouble, or if, or even when.  Michel?”

He returned the nod and began to work at the nest of cords beneath the bus’ steering column.  While he did that, I focused on Fatima.  “We’re going to do something very dangerous,” I said.  “And I need you to make sure that your brothers and sisters don’t distract us while we’re doing it.  Can you do that?”

Fatima pursed her lips in thought.  “Yes.  I think I can.”

I know you just got them back,” I said, still talking without taking the time to consider my words.  “And I know you’d rather get them away from here, instead of chasing these slavers down, but – “

She held up a hand with such self-possessed authority that I actually topped, mid-sentence, and blinked silently at her.  “You helped them,” she said, indicating the rest of the Urchins with a slow sweep from one side of the bus to the other.  “You did, and so did Hisein and your friend.  I can keep my brothers and sisters calm.”

I closed my mouth before any more words could spill out. Fatima couldn’t possibly be as calm as her bearing indicated, but that wasn’t really important at the moment. All that mattered was that she managed to stop the Urchins from panicking. As long as she could manage that, there was at least a chance of success.

Success at what, though? I still didn’t have the vaguest idea of how to rescue Devlin. Mila wasn’t going to be any help at the conceptualization stage and I doubted she’d be much use in the actual rescue, either. We were outnumbered too badly for a pitched battle and, besides, not even Fatima’s self-possession was going to be enough to control all of the Urchins if things dissolved into general mayhem. Mila had talents, absolutely; it was just that those talents, at this very instant, just weren’t suited for the current task.

Michel was a similar problem. He was capable of maintaining morale and positive thinking under the most dire circumstances and he was good enough at filling in minor roles whenever the job called for it. Whatever I came up with wouldn’t be a minor role. Devlin was already neck-deep in serious trouble; adding a relative novice into the mix would only muddy the waters.

No, this was on my head. I needed time to focus but, every time I tried to focus, a thousand errant worries broke in and interrupted my train of thought. It wasn’t the first time I’d found myself wishing for Devlin’s ability to simply block things out.

I blinked, mentally rewound my thoughts, and sorted through them. Obstacles…blocking things out…there might be something I could use in those two ideas.

Michel,” I said, “how easy is it to flip one of these things?”

I have driven buses before,” he said. “It will not flip unless I do something very wrong.”

Right. Yes. I get that.” I searched my memory for a few moments, trying to remember the specific layout of the shanty town. We’d taken a roundabout path through the streets in order to avoid the presumed guard towers, but I was fairly certain of a few details. “I need you to follow those ATVs, Michel, as quick as this bus can move. Got it?”

He nodded, without question, and set to work hotwiring the bus.

And me?” Mila asked.

We’re going to be making a lot of noise,” I said, “and I don’t think the slavers are going to be so focused on Devlin that they can’t spare a few people to deal with us. I need you to make sure that they don’t slow us down.”

High speed shootout?” Mila mused. She flashed her teeth for an instant. “I wish I’d had a chance to get my hands on some heavier gear. I’ve only got one or two clips on me. Wasn’t planning on a running battle.”

Would this help?” Fatima asked. Mila and I both turned to look at the little girl. She was pointing at a heavy black duffle bag, nestled under one of the remaining seats. “The slavers made sure to load bags like this into the bus before you came.”

Mila knelt, unzipped the bag, and rummaged around inside for a few moments. When she emerged, she was practically beaming. “Weapons,” she said. “Much more than we’ve seen from the slavers, so far.”

What are we looking at?”

In response, Mila opened the bag wider, so that I could lean over and peek at its contents. There were weapons in the bag, alright: two long barreled rifles that looked like something a sniper might use, three or four assault rifles with elongated clips shaped like bananas, grenades of varying sizes and shapes, and at least five different handguns that only barely resembled each other. In addition to that arsenal, there was a healthy smattering of random bullets, clips, and magazines at the bottom of the bag.

I let out a low, involuntary whistle, even as Fatima and the rest of the Urchins drew as far back as they were able in the confines. “They can’t have brought all of this to deal with us,” I said.

They probably didn’t,” Mila said. “If I had to guess, this is probably equipment that the previous occupants left behind. The slavers must have thought they could make a little more profit offloading these supplies. Explains why they aren’t actually using these guns.”

It seemed almost too good to be true, but I figured that I couldn’t always roll metaphorical snake eyes. “Is this going to be enough to handle any pursuers?” I asked.

Mila nodded and began removing guns, laying them out neatly on the seat itself and cataloging the individual pieces. “Yeah,” she said. She didn’t look up from the weapons as she spoke. “Yeah, this’ll do just fine.”

I turned away, leaving her to to her work, and looked out through the front window. Some of the ATVs were still in view as they attempted to navigate through the ruined street without damaging something vital. Further ahead of them, at the end of a long stretch of debris and detritus, the sky was growing lighter. We’d been in the shanty town longer than expected. So long, in fact, that it was nearly dawn.

I could use that too, actually.

Michel crossed the appropriate wires and the bus sputtered, kicked, then came to life. He took up position behind the wheel and looked at me for confirmation. I gave him a quick, terse nod. He shifted gears and began his pursuit of the ATVs and, presumably, Devlin and Hisein.

Behind me, Mila was speaking to Fatima in a low voice. “It’s going to be tight,” she said, “but I’ll need a clear path to the back of this bus if someone gets behind us. They probably won’t, but still.”

I can try,” Fatima said.

Try hard,” Mila said. “A few seconds in either direction…”

She understands how serious it is,” I interrupted. Devlin, Michel, and I had grown used to Mila’s characteristic blunt manner. A child taking on responsibility for a massive number of scared orphans wouldn’t necessarily have that same talent.

Mila opened her mouth to respond, but whatever sentence she’d been planning to say never made it past her lips. We’d only just started down the street and, already, two ATVs rumbled out from a side street in our wake. Two vehicles equaled four men and God only knew what weapons.

Mila!” I snapped.

She was already in motion. Mila began pushing her way through the Urchins, using a token amount of effort to avoid hurting them, but there were too many and the space was too small. That’s when Fatima barked out a single word in Arabic to her honor guard. The muscular boys repeated the word and backed it up with action. Where Mila had been less delicate than strictly necessary, Fatima’s honor guard was downright brutal. They only needed to shove a few of the Urchins aside before the rest got the message and split down the middle, crowding themselves to the sides of the bus as quickly as they could.

While Fatima began talking to the Urchins, her voice smooth and level, Mila got into position at the rear of the bus. She popped open the emergency exit before she dropped the black duffle bag to the floor beside her. A few moments of furtive searching yielded one of the assault rifles, already loaded. Mila ran her hands over the weapon, checking for details I knew nothing about, and then went down on one knee. She braced the rifle against her shoulder and waited.

I watched her actions in stunned silence. Adrenaline was still pounding through my bloodstream. It demanded that I act, that I move, but my arms and legs refused to follow my orders. Each second stretched out to five times its natural length and the only thing I could do was think. There were too many factors to consider: things I didn’t know, things I couldn’t know, the fact that the bus was moving too fast over uneven ground, whether or not the two ATVs following us were only the vanguard for a larger force in the wings. It wasn’t that I began second-guessing myself, so much as those confidence-sapping insecurities wormed their way past my defenses and took up permanent residence at the forefront of my thoughts.

What if I was wrong? What if I’d made a mistake or overestimated the abilities of any one member of our team? If we were stopped or even slowed down, it would likely mean the deaths of everyone I’d grown to consider as family over the past six months. And it would all be because I’d needed better equipment.

Mila, blessedly, didn’t share my hesitation. She knelt there, patient and calm, eyeing the approaching ATVs with the eyes of a born hunter. If she harbored any secret doubt, it didn’t affect her aim or her focus. Fatima was standing next to me. She’d stopped speaking to the assembled Urchins. Whatever she’d said had succeeded into calming the children down. They weren’t silent – God, I couldn’t even imagine how terrified they must be – but they kept their whispers to a dull roar. The little girl reached up and took my hand in hers, then squeezed. I returned the pressure without thinking about it. She and I both needed a little bit of reassurance.

The two men riding on the back of the two ATVs pulled out rectangular guns and pointed them in our direction. With the bus’ emergency exit open, they had clear shots into the vehicle. Mila never gave them a chance to take advantage of that opportunity. The assault rifle in her hand rattled off several shots, paused, then rattled off several more. Splinters of wood chipped off of the buildings and from the ground, where discarded lumber covered most of the surface.

The front tires on one of the ATVs exploded in a rush of air and sound. Its driver struggled to bring the vehicle back under his control, but there wasn’t any possibility of that. The ATV jerked, tossing the gunman from its back, and then flipped over. The driver managed to extricate himself before the machine fell on him, and his face collided with the ground as a reward for his efforts. The second ATV swerved away from the sudden obstacle and drew even closer. The smell of gasoline, similar to the propane from the generator, filled the air.

Mila?” The question came out at a higher pitch than I’d intended.

I’ve got this.”

She aimed and squeezed the trigger again. Another burst of machine gun fire came from the rifle and I noticed something this time. I couldn’t keep count of the bullets, but there was a pattern to the sound and the accompanying bloom of light. Mila corrected her aim and fired a third time. A few of the bullets were visible, like streaks of bright light, in the pre-dawn light. Some of those bullets passed by the ATV, which was drawing close enough for its gunman to take a shot at us, and buried themselves in the ground behind it.

When the fire started, tracing its way back like a snake from where the bullets had landed, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Neither, apparently, could the ATV’s driver. The gunman riding on the back yelled something to the driver, who turned to respond. When he saw the winding trail of fire, he did the only reasonable thing in the situation: he leaped off of the vehicle without the slightest hesitation. At his speed, the impact knocked him senseless immediately upon impact. The gunman followed suit, just a split second before the winding flame reached the ATV itself. Fire traveled from the ground, climbed up a nearly invisible stream of trickling gasoline, and found its way into the tank.

The explosion wasn’t impressively sized, but that didn’t make it any less impressive for its effect. A sudden burst of heat and pressure, accompanied by a light too bright for me to look at directly, erupted out of the gas tank and sent the ATV itself leaping off at an angle until it crashed into and through one of the rotted buildings. When the explosion died down to a few small blazes, I couldn’t see any sign of the four slavers and there wasn’t any indication that another group of riders were following in their wake.

A hushed awe fell over the Urchins and, in all honesty, over my own thoughts, as well. Michel didn’t turn from the road ahead of us, but I suspected he’d at least heard the brief rattle of gunfire.

Sarah?” Michel asked. There was a slight quaver in his voice.

I forced myself to look away from Mila’s handwork. When I saw what Michel was looking at, every ounce of moisture in my mouth turned to dust.

Devlin’s stolen bus rampaged through the wrecked and ill-repaired structures in the shanty-town, using its greater bulk to force its way through whatever obstacles got in its way. I’d been wondering when he’d learned how to drive a vehicle of that size and now, looking at him from a distance, I got my answer: he hadn’t learned, in any meaningful way. There was no skill to his handling of the bus. He was simply standing on the accelerator and hoping for the best.

Circling him like a pack of hungry sharks, I counted at least seven ATVs, each one manned by a driver and a gunman. The smaller vehicles were careful not to get close enough that a lucky swerve could take them out, but they had guns and the will to use them. They wouldn’t need to get within striking distance to shoot out the tires.

Mila joined us back at the front of the bus, breathing a little harder. “I hope you know what you’re doing,” she said.

Internally, I hoped that I did, too.

Chapter 24

It didn’t take me very long to decide that I would not, in fact, be listening to Devlin’s approach and theft of a bus through the comms.  I couldn’t quite see him from my position and I knew that, if I were able, I’d be focused so intently on the noises coming through the earbud that I’d be paying less attention to my own immediate surroundings.  That was the kind of thing that worked just fine when I had distance to contemplate.  As a strategy, it was less viable when I was in the actual field.

I also made sure that Mila couldn’t overhear things, either.  Her ability to multi-task wasn’t as great as Devlin’s – although it was almost certainly better than mine – but I still didn’t want to put too much on her plate.  Besides that, there was the odd relationship developing between her and Michel.  I wasn’t sure how well she’d handle him being in direct danger, if she weren’t in a position to step in and help, should things go badly awry.

Which, of course, they would.  There was a wealth of evidence that pointed towards ever increasing levels of entropy, where these things were concerned.

So, the two of us crept closer to the lines of children, taking care to make as little noise as possible.  Mila moved like a shadow, flowing easily from cover to cover, so light on her feet that she may as well have been floating.  I was less stealthy, but much more anxious about my aural footprint than she was.  That, mercifully, was enough.  We reached a spot maybe a yard or two away from the children, trusting that their murmuring voices would be sufficiently loud to mask our own footsteps, and practically knelt there.  The shadows weren’t deep enough to hide us, if any of the slavers decided to look in our direction. 

Fatima,” I whispered through the comms.  The tiny dot on my tablet gave us her general location, to within a few feet, and I doubted that we were close enough that she could have heard my voice unassisted.  “Can you tell me what you see?”

Silence, for a few beats.  The throng of Urchins shifted and swayed like a single organism, responding to subtle changes in the wind and in the temperaments of their captors.  When Fatima did answer, her voice was so low that I was tempted to raise the volume on her line.  “The man are trying to decide what to do with us.  Some think that it would be easier to…”  She trailed, murmured something in Arabic, and then fell silent again.

I didn’t have to understand the language to decipher the thought she’d left unfinished.  “We know.  The slavers are on edge now.  They know that someone’s here, but they don’t know who or why.  Until they figure that out, most of them won’t know what to do.”

Mila tapped me on one shoulder and mouthed a question: Is that true?

I gave her a helpless look in response and shrugged.  By all rights, what I’d told Fatima should be true.  By setting off some kind of alarm, I’d tipped off the slavers to our presence, but that didn’t necessarily mean they’d immediately shift from ‘kidnap’ to ‘murder.’  They didn’t know how many of us were in the shanty town , for one thing, or for what purpose.  We could have been an entire army, systematically working our way through their forces with cruel professionalism.   As far as they knew, we could have been duly appointed emissaries of the local law enforcement or even federal police – assuming, of course, that this country even hadfederal police.  Either way, opening fire on the children could quickly bring down the wrath of potentially superior forces when a deal might still be struck between us and them. 

Unless the Magi had already given them strict orders to the opposite effect.  I didn’t think that was true, though.  If those unseen criminal overlords had told the slavers to execute the Urchins at the first sign of trouble, the Urchins would already be executed.  The fact that the slavers had, for all intents and purposes, gone into a holding pattern was encouraging.  It just wasn’t encouraging enough.

How are you going to help us?” Fatima’s whispery voice asked, barely audible through in the earbud.

Can you see a bus anywhere near you?”

Yes,” she said, a moment or two later.  “These men forced some of us to get on board, but then they stopped.”

I don’t know what’s going to happen in the next few minutes,” I said, “but there’s going to be a very loud distraction.  Most of the slavers will probably head over to see what’s going on and some of them are even going to leave you alone entirely.  When that happens, I need you to get as many of your brothers and sisters onto that bus, okay?”

Fatima didn’t respond immediately.  I could imagine the thoughts and questions that must be flashing through her mind.  The slavers had been trying to get the Urchins onboard the buses, so that it would be easier to transport them out of the shanty town and off to some dock where they could be sold into slavery abroad.  And here I was, still a complete stranger, asking Fatima to lead the children into the one place where they definitely did not want to go. 

But Fatima didn’t voice any doubts.  She didn’t even hesitate for very long; just long enough, perhaps, for her to swallow down some of her fear and put on a brave face for the other Urchins around her.  “Yes,” she said.  “Yes, okay.  I will get them to go.”

A man’s voice, audible through her end of the line, snapped out a few words in a language I recognized, but didn’t quite understand.  Greek, maybe?  Or Turkish? Whatever language it was, someone else responded in the same tongue. 

I didn’t say anything further to Fatima, out of a paranoid fear that one of the slavers might notice something wrong with a little girl speaking to herself.  If they already had noticed her, maybe they would just chalk it up to a little girl praying for salvation.  It would be an entirely believable excuse.  And, in an odd way, wasn’t Fatima doing exactly that?

Before I had a chance to say anything else, a sound like a penny ricocheting around in an empty oil drum reached me.  It was too loud to be a penny, obviously, and I hadn’t seen any oil drums in the vicinity.  From our position, I could just barely see the heads of a few slavers turn in the general direction of the sound.  It came a second time.  Not a penny, no, but…was it a bee?  Some oversized bee?  That didn’t make sense.  But it was something making that odd noise, loud enough that I could distinctly hear it, even over the noise from the Urchins.

The third time the noise came, it was followed in short order by a massive woosh, like a giant sized vacuum.  A plume of fire blossomed in the sky, stretching up a dozen feet.  The sound was immense.  Even from this distance, it seemed to suck the air out of my lungs.  In my peripheral vision, I saw Mila reel back slightly, gasping in surprise or awe.  The Urchins, already wired and jittery to begin with, fell into a nervous huddle of bodies, clinging to each other for safety and protection.

And the slavers – at least, the slavers whose heads I could make out – turned as one toward the sudden pillar of flame, yelling at each other in a mishmash of languages too dense for me to even begin deciphering. 

Ask Devlin for a distraction and one could safely expect enough chaos to serve as a three ring circus’ main event.  Ask him for a show and…well, he’d give you a show.

Now that I’d seen the fruits of his labors, it wasn’t hard to figure out what Devlin had done.  There must have been another one of those generators located somewhere nearby or, perhaps, a supply of gasoline.  The slavers would have needed some way of fueling the buses.  With a little bit of luck, it wouldn’t be too difficult to rig a sort of impromptu bomb.  Explosions weren’t my area of expertise, but Devlin had spent a decent amount of time with Anton during the London affair.  Before that, he’d been in prison for nearly three years and that was more than enough time to pick up a few tricks.

I wasn’t surprised when, moments later, a bus engine roared to life.  It was the same sound I’d heard before, only much closer now.  As soon as the roar of the bus sounded, nearly all of the slavers took off at a dead run.  Only two stayed behind with the Urchins and they only remained in place because other voices, sterner and with the weight of authority, commanded them to do so.  It took those two men some effort to corral the Urchins into some semblance of order, as well as gratuitous gestures with their semi-automatic rifles, but they got the point across.

Or they would have conveyed their message if Mila hadn’t chosen that moment to attack.  She moved without waiting for me to give the order and crashed into the guards like a cannonball.  Her abrupt appearance set off another cascade of outcries from the terrified children.  Thankfully, the slavers who were already in hot pursuit of Devlin and his rolling distraction didn’t stop to consider that they might be under attack on two fronts.

Before I had enough time to fully comprehend what was happening, Mila had dealt with both of the slavers.  The scuffle must’ve particularly brutal.  Few people that I’d ever seen were capable of going toe to toe with Mila for very long, even if she wasn’t entirely serious about the conflict.  But even I’d been able to pick up on the undercurrent of emotion Mila carried, whenever children were involved.  Something in the Urchins reminded her of herself; by attacking the slavers, then, she was able to work out some of her own issues in the process. 

Dr. Bridges would have been so proud of my ability to psychoanalyze friends and allies.

Mila delivered a vicious kick to one of the groaning slavers where he writhed before flicking her eyes in my direction.  “We’ve got to go,” she said.  “Devlin won’t be able to distract them for long before these slavers decide to take a risk.”

What kind of risk are we talking about?”

They’ve got guns,” Mila said, in a tone like a kindergarten teacher.  “He doesn’t.  Even if he does, he won’t use them.  If they can’t kill him outright, they’ll shoot out the tires and kill him when he tries to run.”

My blood, still filled to the brim with adrenaline, ran cold at that thought.  We had an exact strategy for myself, for Mila, for Michel, and for the Urchins.  No such plan existed for Devlin.  If he stopped for any reason, Mila was perfectly right: the slavers would do their level best to kill him.  And he couldn’t keep driving indefinitely.  Presumably, his distraction had destroyed their stockpiles of gasoline, but there was no way of knowing how much fuel was actually in the bus he’d stolen.

Time was a factor.   It was always a factor and I was beginning to hate the clock’s inexorable ticking.

Fatima!”  I raised my voice, not caring who heard me.  We had the safest position now and Mila would be able to shoot at anyone who tried to attack, without putting the children’s lives at risk.  “Fatima, where are you?”

The reply came from a thick knot of children, all male and about sixteen years old, who didn’t scatter at the sound of my voice so much as they fanned out. “Here,” Fatima said.  “I am here.” 

She gestured at two of the young men around her.  Without hesitating, they bent down to pick her up and raised her over their heads.  The rest of the Urchins stared at her for a second before they also raised their arms and half-carried, half-passed the tiny girl across the surface of the crowd until she could step down in front of us.  In less stressful circumstances, the effect would have been impressive.  As it was, I was just glad that we wouldn’t have to wait for her to push her way through the crowd.

We need to get these kids on board the closest bus,” I said, “and we need to do it right now.”

Where is Hisein?” Fatima asked.

I pointed in the general direction of Devlin’s commandeered vehicle.  “Over there.  Somewhere.  I’m not really sure, but that’s not the point.  The longer it takes us to get these kids settled in and ready to go, the more likely it is that Hisein and Devlin are going to be in a lot of trouble.”

Fatima took that pronouncement with more grace than many full grown adults I’d met over the years.  She didn’t waste any time asking for more details or rocking back in stunned confusion.  She turned back around so that she faced the rest of the Orphans and began speaking to them in rapid fire Arabic.  At first, her small voice wasn’t audible over the din of voices, horns, and shuffling feet.  But, as she continued, the children grew quieter and began to listen.

She’s good at this,” Mila murmured in my ear.  Of course, I hadn’t noticed her sneaking up on me, but that wasn’t anything new. 

Better than most,” I agreed.  “Wish I knew what she was saying, though.”

Fatima finished her speech and allowed a moment of silence to fall.  No more than ten seconds later a voice, even smaller and younger than hers, whispered a word. 

Omma.”   

Other children repeated the whispered word and, before long, it seemed like the entire gang of Urchins was murmuring the word in a single voice.  It was the same word Hisein had used earlier, when referring to Fatima.  Now that I thought about it, it might have been the same word that the Urchins at the warehouse had been whispering, when Fatima’s rival had maneuvered her into setting off on an impossible quest.

It meant something to the children, obviously, even if I had no idea what that meaning might be.  Whatever it was, it was enough that the children consented to her rule.  With a few sharp words and gestures, she pointed out several of the largest Urchins in the throng.  Those boys stepped forward and organized the Urchins back into lines in short order.  They all started moving to the remaining bus – the one that the slavers had been stripping bare, in order to accommodate more children – and began to pile in. 

I would have stared at the procession if Mila hadn’t tapped me on the shoulder.  I turned to face her and saw another line of children approaching from a different direction.  Michel was at the head of the line, his face smeared with dirt, mud, and other detritus that I didn’t care to identify.  When he noticed us noticing him, he smiled and the bright white of his teeth dragged a smile out of me, as well.

What did I miss?” Michel asked, when he was close enough for us to hear. 

Not much,” Mila replied easily.  “An explosion, some grand theft auto.  Maybe some kind of messiah situation, if this girl’s as good as it seems.”

She tilted her head in the direction of Fatima’s neatly lined up Urchins.  Already, the children who had come with Michel were picking up the chant from the others and falling into place.

Ah,” Michel said.  “That is…uh…”

Ignore her,” I said.  “Can you drive a bus?”

Michel blinked.  “I drove a train, Sarah,” he said, after a few beats.  “Yes, I can drive a bus.”

A little bit of heat rose into my cheeks, which I blithely ignored.  A gunshot rang out in the distance.  There was no accompanying cry of pain or squeal of tires, but the sound was still more than enough to galvanize me into action. 

Devlin’s out there,” I said, stabbing at the air with a finger.  “And I don’t think he has any idea how the hell he’s supposed to get out of here.”

Michel took in the situation – the Urchins, Fatima, the torn out bus seats scattered across the emptying street – and nodded.  “What do you want us to do?”

I don’t know how, but we’re going to have to rescue him,” I said.  Then, after a slightly more dramatic pause than strictly necessary, “Again.”

Chapter 23

We ran, full tilt, for the tiny dot that represented Fatima’s location.  Mila followed on one side, holding her collapsible baton in one hand and a handgun in the other, eyes narrowed in search of any surprise threats.  For my part, I kept a death grip on my equipment bag, with its dual tablets, its laptop, the gun Mila had forced me to borrow, and a few assorted odds and ends that I couldn’t see myself making any use of.  The various items bumped against my hip as I dashed through the shanty town, all thoughts of stealth chased from my mind.

Before starting on this flight through the town, I’d committed Fatima’s location to memory.  I could always check the relevant tablet again, just to make sure, but she’d stopped moving a while ago.  The obvious conclusion was that the slavers had reached whatever means of transport they intended to use for the children. The more sinister conclusion, however, was that they’d decided the children were more trouble than their collective lives were worth.  If that second option were the case, I wasn’t rushing to pull together my team and accomplish a rescue; I was only hurrying to find the site of a massacre. 

I pushed that out of my mind.  Thinking about the worst wouldn’t do anything but sap my motivation.  Fatima would be okay.  The other Urchins would be alive. They just had to be.

How long until you reach them?” I asked through the comms, between breaths. 

Five minutes,” he responded promptly.  He wasn’t out of breath, as I would have expected.  Whatever training Mila had put him through must have included some cardio.   “Or we could make it in five minutes if we didn’t have these kids with us.”

And you can’t stash them anywhere,” I said, “because there’s no way to make sure that the slavers aren’t going to sweep through the area after you leave.  Shit.”

Shit,” Devlin agreed.

Mila reached a low wall in front of us.  She dropped low, sliding into position at the edge of the wall, and checked the path.  She didn’t fire her gun or leap to the attack so I assumed there weren’t any slavers in the immediate vicinity.  She touched one finger to her ear, despite knowing full well that it wouldn’t make the transmission any clearer.  “Michel?”

Oui?”  Michel’s general calm and steady demeanor sounded frayed and stressed, but he was still holding it together.  That was admirable, if not quite unexpected. He’d stayed level-headed during the London debacle, as a complete novice; saving an unknown quantity of orphans from a pack of child-murdering slavers wasn’t really any more complicated than that had been.  In fact, it was arguably a lot simpler: slavers were bad, so the team was good. 

There was something to be said for clearly drawn battle lines, at least.

Tell me that you didn’t forget to pick up a weapon,” Mila said.

Michel hesitated for an instant.  “A baton,” he said finally.  “And some pepper spray.”

What about the gun I left for you?”

I…did not think we would need it.”

Mila looked over at me and deliberately rolled her eyes in the most exaggerated fashion imaginable.  I understood her point – of course, it was always better to have a weapon and not need to use it – but I also sympathized with Michel.  Just because he was capable of functioning through the chaos that seemed endemic to our lives as of late, that didn’t mean he was necessarily comfortable with the violence of that chaos.  I certainly wasn’t.  But, I supposed, I didn’t spend all that much time actually in the field, so my delicate sensibilities were less likely to be challenged on a regular basis.

It’ll have to do,” Mila said.  She moved ahead, checking each alley for potentially hidden attackers, until she reached another wall.  There, she hunkered down. “Devlin, you’ll have to leave Michel and Hisein with the kids.   He’ll get them to Fatima’s location a little slower, but I think we’re going to need you there as soon as possible.”

I noticed that she didn’t ask Michel if he felt secure in taking on that role.  Mila rarely asked anyone how they felt about things – it just wasn’t in her nature – but even I thought that placing that much stress on Michel might be too much, at the moment.  If he felt the same way, though, he didn’t say anything about it.

Hisein, who’d remained silent thus far, spoke up immediately.  “If you are going to rescue Fatima, then I am going with you.” 

That must have been directed to Devlin, because Devlin responded.  “Listen.  When this was just an infiltration, it was okay to have you along.  But lives are at stake now.  You understand that, right?”

She is my omma,” Hisein said, as if that was all the answer he needed to give.

I wished that I could have seen the nonverbal conversation that was surely taking place on Devlin’s end of the comms.  I might not have caught every subtle microexpression or miniscule tell, but I would’ve been able to follow along a little better, at least.  As it was, I was restricted to the strictly spoken word, which – as Devlin often said – was only half of the conversation, at the absolute most.

Fine,” Devlin said.  Then, to Michel, “You can handle this?”

will handle this,” Michel said.  “I do not know how, but…I will make sure that these children are okay.”

Glad to hear it.”  Devlin took in a deep breath.   “Alright, Hisein; time to run.  Mila, Sarah?  We’ll call you when we’re in position.  Open up a line if something changes on your end.”

Will do,” I said.  I paused long enough to fish out the communications tablet and mute their lines. 

With Devlin and Hisein isolated, I turned my attention to Mila.  She was perched, cat-like, on a wedge of broken mortar, sweeping her eyes across the landscape from left to right, then back again.  She must have felt my eyes on her, because she shifted her weight and center of gravity so that she could face me.  “What is it?”

You wanted to attack,” I said.  “Do you have any idea how, exactly, we’re supposed to do that?”

Mila shook her head.  “Not my area.  I do the attacking and I’ll be happy to do that to these assholes.  But I don’t decide what to attack or how.”

Whose job is that supposed to be?”

She tilted her head.  “Yours,” she said, “or Devlin’s.  Obviously.”

Mila was right.  That had been a stupid question.  It wasn’t that she lacked the intelligence to formulate plans, so much as it wasn’t her area of expertise.  She operated best with concrete goals, hard targets that needed to be taken down.  It was in her nature to prefer straight-up attack; it just wouldn’t be in character for her to single out what to attack or where or how.

Of course, this wasn’t my area of expertise either, but I’d left my comfort zone figuratively miles behind me. 

I turned my thoughts to the problems ahead, trying to ignore the rush of adrenaline that now threatened to make me sick.  “We need to get the kids out.  They needed to get the kids out of here, too, but they couldn’t very well march a line of kidnapped children through the streets.  There are docks they could use, but…”

I trailed off.  There’d been a sound on Devlin’s end of the line earlier.  I’d ignored it, in favor of the much more pressing information that he’d blown our cover, but now I couldn’t stop thinking about it.  What had I heard?  What noise could have been that loud and why would the slavers have brought it with them?

When I realized what it must have been, I spoke at the same time as the thought crystallized in my head.  “A bus,” I said.  “They had to bring a bus.  That’s how they were going to get the kids out of the shanty town.”

Okay,” Mila said placidly.  “What does that mean for us?”

That’s how we’re going to get them out of here,” I said.  “If Fatima and the rest of the Urchins aren’t moving around anymore, we can assume that the slavers’ transportation is either already there or on the way there.  Either way, we’d just need to hit that area, overwhelm whatever security forces they’ve got in place, and then load the Urchins onto the bus.”

Unless there’s more people there than I can deal with.”

Well, yes, unless that happens.”  Mila’s sober assessment cast a shadow over my hasty plan, but only for a moment.  “But Devlin and Hisein can draw some of them away when they get into position.  If the main body of slavers has to split three ways – one to keep an eye on the Urchins, one each for Devlin and Hisein – that would make it a lot easier to put them down, wouldn’t it?”

Mila considered that for a few moments.  “It still won’t be easy,” she said finally.  “If I could take out a few of them from a distance, maybe it’d work, but I can’t do that.”

Why not?  You’ve got your gun on you, right?”

Of course I do.  But this isn’t a precision rifle, Sarah; if I start firing into a crowd like that, I’m as likely to hit one of the Urchins as one of the slavers.  It’ll be like it was at the command center: close the distance, start breaking bones before anyone can react.  Except…”

I finished the thought for her.  “Except the slavers don’t care about killing the Urchins.  And there won’t be an interior light I can turn off, so they’ll be able to spot you coming.”

Exactly.”  She paused.  “I can make the run, if you think it’s the best choice.”

That’d be suicide,” I said.

It’d be my job,” Mila replied.  “I don’t intend to die today, but I’m not about to start avoiding danger at every turn.”

It isn’t danger, Mila, it’s…it’s…” 

I couldn’t think of the right words.  Mila was our bodyguard, our muscle, and our shield, if necessary.  Normally we found ways to use her skills that kept her from directly clashing with armed forces, but that wasn’t her purpose.  When the Lady first contracted Mila to protect us, Mila had probably expected to be a more physical presence.  She’d probably been hoping for it, in fact, if her eagerness for conflict was any indication.

Devlin knew her better than I did.  He might have been able to say, with certainty, that she wasn’t just looking for an opportunity to throw herself into a glorious death.  I didn’t have that confidence, though.  But what did it matter if I felt unsure, in the grand scheme of things?  It wasn’t like I had a lot of options.

The tablet vibrated in my bag.  I removed it, saw that Devlin was attempting to re-open his line, and clicked the appropriate icon. 

We’re here,” he said, in a hushed whisper.  “We’ve got a little bit of height on the…I don’t know, I guess you could call it a staging area.”

I would’ve sacrificed a finger for one of my button cameras.  “What do you see?”

About five seconds of silence – five seconds that felt like fifty minutes – passed.  “There are a lot of Urchins here,” Devlin said.  “They aren’t in rows or anything like that, but if I had to guess…maybe two hundred?”

What about guards?” I asked.

I count at least a dozen.  I don’t have the best angle and there might be some that aren’t in my direct line of vision.”

Mila cleared her throat, signaling that she wanted to speak next.  That was fine by me; I didn’t even know the right questions for this sort of brute force work.

What about weapons?” Mila asked.

Semi-automatic rifles,” Devlin said.  “They look like older models, but I’m pretty sure they’ll still work just fine.  And they’re on edge, too.  Whatever set them off earlier apparently spread throughout their ranks.”

Heat rushed into my cheeks, but I said nothing.  Just because I was academically aware that Devlin wasn’t taking a shot at me, that didn’t mean my over developed sense of personal responsibility was going to accept that purely logical fact.

Mila shot me a look that I couldn’t quite read.  “Do you see any buses?”

Two of them,” Devlin said.  “Looks like they’re stripping the seats out of one bus, though, so…maybe they’re just going to use one of them as a decoy?”

I did some quick math in my head.  Life as a Ford hadn’t given me much of an opportunity to ride public transportation, but life as a thief had occasionally forced me to avail myself of buses, subways, and the like.  Assuming the majority of the Urchins were around Fatima’s size, give or take a foot, the slavers could probably fit around seventy of them into a single bus.  With the seats removed, and the Urchins piled up together, that number could easily go up to a hundred or more.

Mila was still talking.  “Makes sense.  Especially now that they know we’re here, they’d want to throw us off of our game by leaving a false trail.  Is there any way you could use that?”

Huh?  Use what?”

The extra bus,” Mila said.  “The one that you think they aren’t actually going to use.  Is there any way you can turn that to your advantage?”

Maybe?” Devlin said.  His voice went up at the end of the sentence, as if he wasn’t sure what Mila was even asking of him.  “What do you two have in mind?”

Mila gave me another look.  This time, I understood it.  She was prompting me to step up, to explain my own plan to Devlin.

There was a not-insignificant part of me that rebelled at the thought of sharing my own half-baked idea.  I drowned that part of my psyche in the adrenaline flow flooding my body.  “I’m thinking that we can use the buses as our getaway vehicles,” I said.  “If you and Hisein can distract some of the guards around the Urchins, we should be able to get them on board one of the buses.”

There at least twelve men down here,” Devlin said.  “All of them armed and there’s at least twenty feet of open space around the Urchins and their guards.”

Mila sucked at her teeth.  “I was afraid of that.  A lack of cover just means they’re going to spot me even sooner.”

Well, we’ve got to figure out something,” I snapped.  Immediately, I regretted it, but the outburst had already happened.  No point in dwelling on it.  Still, I modulated my tone before continuing.  “We’ve got somewhere around a hundred kids to rescue and we can’t march them all out of here, single file.”

The three of us went quiet, each of us presumably thinking heavy thoughts.  Devlin spoke first.  “The bus thing was a good idea,” he said.  “Use their own equipment against them and all that.”

Yeah,” I said, “but you just pointed out that there’s barely any chance that Mila sneaks up on and takes out the guards without getting shot first.  If the guards are still there, we can’t get the Urchins on board the bus and, even if we did manage that, we wouldn’t be able to get away from them.  They’re trying to kill us, we’re trying not to get anyone killed.”

Unless they have it coming,” Mila added.  I frowned in her direction and she shrugged her indifference back at me.

Right, that’s fine,” Devlin said.  “We can’t distract enough of the guards to make it safe for you to just make an approach.”

Then what?”

I could just steal the bus,” Devlin said.  “That would work, wouldn’t it?”

I opened my mouth to respond, blinked, and then closed it slowly.  “Yes,” I said eventually.  “That…would probably also work.”

We only need a little bit of a headstart on the slavers,” Devlin continued.  He was getting more animated and I knew that he was warming to the plan.  “Get Fatima, her Urchins, and the ones with Michel on board either one of these buses  – or both, even – and then get the hell out of dodge before the slavers have an opportunity to start concentrating fire on us.”

Mila waited a few moments to see if I was going to say anything.  When I didn’t, she sighed and spoke into the silence.  “What do you want us to do?”

Sarah, you’ve got the information the Lady needed.  You should stay out of this as much as possible.  Not because you can’t handle yourself,” he said in a hurried voice, “but because you’ve got the most valuable goods on you right now.  If you get caught or that information gets lost, then we’ll be staring at a dead end.”

Okay,” I managed to say.

Mila, you should stay with her and only move in to grab whichever bus we’ve left behind after we’ve had a chance to put some distance between us and this spot.”

You want me to babysit Sarah?”

I want you to protect Sarah,” Devlin said, with only the barest hint of irritation in his voice.  “Don’t worry, I’m sure there’ll be plenty of people interested in picking a fight with you.  That’s fine, as long as it’s one or two at a time, and we aren’t going to be putting the kids in danger.  Got it?”

Mila nodded, although her disappointment was plain on her expression. 

She and I reached the edge of a large clearing.  The two of us plastered ourselves to a wall, hoping that distance and shadow would provide concealment, since we hadn’t been able to find any location with a suitable view that would also keep us hidden.   In front of us, stretched out across perhaps a two or three dozen yard area, there was a clearing. In that clearing, sure enough, there were several lines of children mulling about. Occasionally, a grown man would step into view long enough to prod one of the children with the barrel of his rifle.  I mentally adjusted Devlin’s estimate of their number up by about twenty.

Are we all clear on what we need to do?” Devlin asked.

I nodded absently.  Mila spoke for me.  “All clear.”

With the tablet, I temporarily muted Devlin and navigated through the sub menus until I could speak directly to Fatima.  “You’re being very brave,” I said.  “Don’t say anything, but we’re coming to get you alright?  We are coming to get you.”

A dozen seconds passed by and no one spoke into the comms.  Then, in the tiniest little voice imaginable, Fatima said, “Okay.” 

Chapter 22

The interior of the command center was illuminated mostly by the lights of four separate monitors, with a little bit of assistance from Mila’s flashlight. Immediately upon entering the room, my foot caught on the body, lying prone on the floor.  At that brief instant of contact, the body let out a nearly silent groan, shifted slightly, and then returned to a state of noiseless agony.  I looked at Mila and raised an eyebrow. 

I wasn’t about to leave them in any shape to run and tell…well, whoever,” she said, a touch defensively.  Her collapsible baton rested on one shoulder.  I couldn’t actually see the flecks of fresh blood on its too-black surface, but I had no doubt of their existence.

Not complaining,” I said quickly.  “Just impressed.”

Oh,” Mila said.  “Well, uh, thanks.”

She swept her flashlight across the room and, in the beam of illumination, showed me a clear path to the computers.  On either side of that path, seven additional bodies were strewn in heaps and piles.  None of the figures seemed fully aware of their surroundings anymore; a few didn’t even appear to be conscious in any appreciable fashion.  I delicately picked my way through the human wreckage, careful not to disturb any more of the groaning men, and reached the computers before too long.

The array of hardware resembled the sort of setup that I preferred, though not identical.   In my case, two or three screens gave me the opportunity to monitor camera feeds, lines of communication, and security systems while drawing processing power from a single, often over-clocked tower.  In the case of the command center, however, there were two separate towers to choose from.

I picked the tower on the left after a quick internal game of ‘Eeny Meeny Miney Mo’ and plugged my tablet into the relevant USB ports.  A program that had taken a day or two of collaboration between several senior members in the Community came to life and began rifling through every surface file it could get its digital hands on.  With physical access to the computer, I was only contending with the local password generator instead of any particularly robust firewalls or network-level defenses.   There were only so many possible passwords that a person could remember and something told me that the former administrators weren’t the type of people who cared about password strength.

While the tablet did its work, I turned back around.  Mila was dragging people across the floor and stacking them in a dogpile in one corner of the command center.  Occasionally, one of the forms would manage to voice a complaint or grunt in displeasure.  Mila responded to these expressions of displeasure with swift kicks and punches to the soft parts of their bodies. 

How long until you’ve got what you need?”  She didn’t look up from her work, just asked the question as casually as if we’d been sunbathing.

Even though I had no love for these slavers, the sight of them being treated like sacks of rice was a trifle unsettling.  I had to force myself to answer the question without deliberately averting my gaze.  “There are a lot of things the previous residents – should we be calling them something? – could have done to secure whatever data they had,” I said.  “A second level of password protection on certain folders, encryption protocols, maybe even some sort of dead man’s switch.”

Dead man’s switch?”

A trap, only designed to open if some trigger is met.  It would attempt to wipe out every piece of information from the computer in single burst, rather than allow someone unauthorized to gain access.”

Someone unauthorized,” Mila mused, “like you?”

Exactly like me.”  I checked the tablet and saw that it was nearly forty percent of the way through its task.  Easier passwords, like simple strings of consecutive numbers or letters, were easy to sort through.  Now, it began to crunch through the more complicated alphanumeric constructions.  The progress would be slower, but not by much. 

You aren’t worried about triggering something like that?”

I shrugged, feigning a level of comfort I didn’t quite feel.  “If they managed to set something like that up, then we’d be screwed either way.  I’d either get shut down while I’m here or shut down when we’re back at the bed and breakfast.  Worrying about the possibility of a trap that I can’t do anything but trigger would just be a waste of time.”

She nodded once.  I thought she was going to say or ask something else, but Mila kept her mouth shut and continued hauling unconscious and broken forms across the room.

It occurred to me that I’d unconsciously been parroting Devlin in that last exchange.  The point was an accurate one – it really wouldn’t help anyone if I found myself paralyzed with indecision, waffling between two equally untenable choices – but the phrasing hadn’t been my own.  It was the sort of thing he’d say while leaping between speeding train cars or sticking his hand into the literal lion’s maw.  I wasn’t sure if I felt good about my ability to channel him or if that was an omen of something terrible coming down the pipe.  After all, it was a well known fact that Devlin had atrocious luck.

That sneaking suspicion was proven correct when, a moment later, the tablet beeped to inform me of its success.  Both of the screens connected to the second tower switched from the login screen to the desktop.  Not a single file or folder was visible on that desktop.  I clicked the start button and found no programs there, either.

Shit,” I hissed through my teeth.

From her position by the mound of bodies, Mila looked up sharply.  “What’s wrong?  Was there a trap?”

No,” I said, “we were just too late to stop them from wiping this computer clean.  I would’ve noticed a trap like that going off.” 

I wasn’t actually sure that was true.  One of the Community’s elite could probably have created a dead man’s switch that didn’t alert me to its activation.  If that was true, Caelum absolutely could have pulled it off.  But the odds of Caelum being involved in this particular shanty town, in this particular city, at this particular town were vanishingly low.  There was bad luck and then there was fate.  One I believed in; the other, I elected to create for myself.

Either way, there wasn’t anything to be found on the first tower.  The slavers would have needed military grade software to erase the hard drive so thoroughly that even my specialized device couldn’t catch so much as a trail.  I added that observation to my mental file on the inconsistencies and complications of the current job – at some point, I’d need to commit all of those thoughts to an actual file before they faded from memory – and moved onto the second tower.  I allowed myself to hope, just for an instant, that the original kidnappers had been stupid enough to use the same password on both machines, but I didn’t have any such luck.

While one tablet worked, I used the other to open a line to Devlin.  Immediately, the sounds of heavy breathing came through the earbud.  Distantly, I could hear men’s voices calling out in Arabic, Spanish, French, and English.  Something loud and impossibly vast sounded off in the background.

Devlin!”  My voice squeaked slightly on the second syllable.  I noticed it but couldn’t seem to care.  “Devlin, what’s going on?”

It took him a few seconds to reply, and I was forced to spend that time waiting with held breath.  Mila was looking at me, the muscles of her body taut beneath her clothing.

Finally, Devlin responded.  “Uh, I’ve got good news and bad news.”

What?  What are you talking about?”

Another handful of seconds ticked away.  My tablet was still hard at work, crunching through nearly endless permutations, and I was only barely aware of it. “Good news,” Devlin said again, and I noticed that he was gasping for air.  Cardio wasn’t his strong suit.  “Good news or bad news?”

What’s going on?” Mila asked.  “Are they in trouble?”

Interesting that her finely tuned sense of danger extended through the airwaves.  Without hearing a single breath of Devlin’s voice, she was able to tell from my body language that something must have gone wrong with the boys’ team.

If he doesn’t tell me what the hell is going on,” I said, “he’ll damn well be in trouble.”

Good news first, then?” 

Devlin almost sounded chipper.  If I didn’t know him better – if, for instance, I’d been someone who allowed myself to be deceived by the tenor of his voice – I wouldn’t have caught the deep undercurrent of fear in his words.  He was masking his anxiety and fear in sarcasm and insouciance.  Classic Devlin.

We found the kids,” he continued.  “Or some of them, at least.”

How many?”

Haven’t really had an opportunity to count them,” he said.  “It’s been a little bit touch and go.”

Did you find Fatima?  You didn’t forget that she was with them, did you?”

No, Sarah, I did not find Fatima.  And I don’t intend to abandon the rest of the Urchin boys or Urchin-ette girls, either.  But I can’t do anything if I’m running around being followed by an entire battalion of pissed off slavers, now can I?”  He paused.  “That was the bad news, by the way.”

You…and now they’re…but how did you…”  The ability to string individual words into coherent sentences appeared to have left me.  I settled for gaping, fish-mouthed, and struggling to put this bomb into its proper place within my mind.

Connect me with him,” Mila said.  Dumbly, I did exactly that.  Mila’s body language and tone changed slightly.  “Tell me what happened.”

I was still listening to the conversation, even if I couldn’t quite regain the ability to contribute to it.  “We were following the GPS signal, like we talked about,” he said. “Stayed out of sight, even managed to started to get an idea of how many people we were actually dealing with.”

And then?”

I don’t know what happened then,” Devlin said, as frustration began to work its way into the cracks of his facade. “But the people we were following started paying a lot more attention to their trail. I heard someone start talking about getting rid of the dead weight and just getting out of this place.”

Someone else – Michel, most likely, unless Hisein had developed the self-confidence to interject in someone else’s conversation – cleared their throat.

Alright,” Devlin said, “Michel over heard someone saying it. But I would’ve known what they were talking about, even without speaking the language.”

Mila scowled.  It took me less than an instant to find the appropriate conclusion.  The slavers’ first plan had been to kidnap the stolen Urchins in the process of wiping out all evidence of the shanty town’s true purpose.  Their second plan, still in pursuit of the ultimate objective, was far simpler: kill literally everyone and leave a mess for someone else to sort out later.  It didn’t matter to the slavers that their targets were children.

A second realization followed on the heels of the first.  Devlin had said things had changed minutes prior, that the slavers had only changed their minds about what to do with the children a fairly short period of time ago.  I would’ve bet anything that the moment their priorities changed coincided closely with the moment I’d cut the power to the command center.

It was a trap,” I said, mostly to myself.  “It was a trap and I triggered it.”

What?” Devlin asked.  I’d temporarily forgotten that the line was still open.  “What are you talking about?”

The slavers knew that someone or something had taken out the warlords, so they came prepared.  But the equipment we’ve seen, the personnel count?  It doesn’t make sense if they only came here to kidnap some unarmed children and get away, especially if no one even knew to expect them.”

So?”

It was so obvious now.  I could hardly believe that I’d allowed myself to overlook so many critical pieces of information.  The slavers were hirelings, disposable cogs in someone else’s greater plan.  All evidence thus far pointed to the Magi as the most likely suspects.  And the Magi had proven, on a scale that boggled the mind, that their skill at baiting traps was superlative.  So they’d sent the slavers out to accomplish one goal – protecting or eradicating any evidence of their involvement in this region – and hoped that they might be able to deal with one of the irritations they’d been facing over the past six months at the same time. And I had been so focused on the possibility of finding information, on protecting the Urchins and discovering whatever scant scraps of knowledge there were to find on the Mouse, that I’d walked directly into the trap with my eyes shut and my arms wide open.  Mila’s wholesale destruction of their forces had probably been the trigger that set all of the slavers on high alert.

The only thing that could even be considered vaguely positive about the entire affair was that the Magi weren’t looking for us specifically.  So they hadn’t known who to expect, how many forces to bring, what defenses and countermeasures to prepare.  The slavers were an exploratory step.  If they were given an opportunity, the next move the Magi made would be considerably more decisive.

So why are they chasing you?” Mila asked.  I heard the words, distantly, but it was tough to stop the self-pity train from rolling on down its tracks.

They were chasing us,” Devlin corrected.  “We lost them.  I think.  It’s hard to hide two people; I don’t even know where to start with trying to hide two dozen.”  

Two dozen?  What are you even – “ Mila cut herself off and snapped her jaw shut.  In a less stressful moment, I would have found the gesture comical, maybe even hysterical.  “You took the kids from them?”

We, uh…enticed the children with a better offer,” Michel said smoothly.  “The slavers were not as amenable to the suggestions, it seems.”

Despite her obvious reluctance, the tiniest fraction of a smile appeared at the corners of Mila’s lips.  “How?”

I distracted them,” Devlin said, “and when they were busy chasing after their own shadows, Michel moved in to get them away.  It didn’t take long before they realized something was going on.  They turned around and started coming after us.”

In my mind, I formed a question.  Something about their numbers, or if he considered them to be trained professionals, or maybe even just if Michel and Devlin were doing alright.  Whatever question tried to form itself was crushed, however, and the first words out of my mouth came from a place of self-righteous, irrational irritation.

Why didn’t you let us know?” I asked. 

I was a little busy,” Devlin replied.  “As I’m sure I mentioned.”

You couldn’t find a second to tap your comms,  give us some warning that the slavers  were willing to promote themselves from kidnapping up to murder?”

The very fact that they were willing to take that step,” Devlin countered, “is exactly the reason I decided to use every one of my breaths to run.  Are you really that upset that I didn’t call you immediately? It’s only been a few minutes, for God’s sake.”

I took a deep breath. When that didn’t immediately calm me down, I took another. Still no luck. I was being ridiculous, that much was clear. Devlin had done the right thing, as he seemed pathologically incapable of not doing, and I wasn’t really going to get mad at him for saving the children. Sure, he’d made our jobs much more difficult by actively inciting the ire of the slavers, but he could hardly be blamed for that. If anything, I’d been going out of my way to complicate the matter, adding more and more complications to our time in Tangiers virtually every time I spoke with one of the Urchins.

We still had a job to do. I needed to focus on that, instead of dwelling on mistakes already made.

You’re right,” I said. “You’re right. Sorry, I’m just…trying to wrap my head around all of this.”

Don’t worry about it,” Devlin said, “but if you could wrap your head around this a little faster, I wouldn’t complain about it.”

Mila shifted her weight from one foot to the other as she drew a handgun from some concealed holster and began checking it over. “Well, we won’t have time to make a plan anymore, that’s for sure. At least, not the way the two of you are used to doing things.”

What are you suggesting?” I asked.

Think about everything we don’t know,” Mila said. She finished inspecting the weapon, returned it to its hiding place, and began counting off points with her fingers. “We don’t know how many people are here, how heavily armed they are, how committed they are to actually, uh…getting rid of evidence. We don’t know if reinforcements are coming and, if they are, how many men will be arriving, when, and what weapons they’re going to have. We don’t know how many children need to be saved or where they’re getting shipped off to. We don’t know who’s actually giving the orders – although, we can take a pretty safe guess at that – and we don’t know what other orders, if any, these slavers were given.”

She ran out of fingers. I waited for her to continue, but she said nothing. Years spent with Devlin had taught me to read a few specific tricks of body language and Mila was broadcasting one of those with the force of a radio tower: she wanted me to ask an obvious question, so that she’d be able to hit back with a one liner. Once more, I internally complained about Devlin’s bad habits and their infectious nature.

What do we know?” I asked.

Exactly as I’d expected, Mila flashed one of her feral, animal grins. “We know what we have to do.”

And that is?”

Attack,” she said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.

I opened my mouth to shoot down that idea, but Devlin spoke before I could. “She’s got a point,” he said over the comms. “We can’t play defense without finding ourselves boxed in by superior numbers. Stealth wasn’t ever going to work indefinitely. If we were going to save the kids, that was going to make a lot of noise.”

My tablet, still connected to the lone remaining computer tower, beeped three ties in a very particular sequence. I glanced down at its screen. While the first computer had been stripped bare, it appeared that the second system hadn’t received the cleansing process yet. Having cracked the password, my various programs began the process of downloading, archiving, and storing every single image, document, and spreadsheet.

It only took a minute or two to finish transferring the computer’s contents to my tablet. When we were safely back at the bed and breakfast, I’d be able to spend time poring over the details and connecting dots where possible. At that moment, however, my team and I had more pressing issues to contend with.

We’d come, originally, to get our hands on upgraded equipment. In only a day or two, that had spiraled violently out of control. Now, we found ourselves faced with a group of slavers, an unknown quantity of children in need of assistance, and a little girl who was willing to do the brave thing, even if it put her in the most dire peril imaginable.

I swallowed the nervous lump threatening to lodge itself in my throat and forced myself to smile back at Mila.

You want to attack?” I asked, faking confidence for her benefit and for Devlin’s, via the comms. “Let’s go attack, then.”

Chapter 21

We no longer had to avoid the towers, which should have made our journey inward easier. But, in exchange for those static points of overlook, Mila and I now had to contend with the possibility of roving groups of slavers and enslaved. Those groups could be composed of any number of people, armed in a variety of ways, and they wouldn’t follow any sort of fixed patrol route. Men of differing ages, experience levels, and “professionalism” – if the word even applied to people who made their money trading in human lives – could appear at a moment’s notice. It wouldn’t matter how skilled Mila was or how much strength I drew from panicked desperation; if someone got the drop on me, the odds of our survival would drop like the blade on a guillotine.

So, in effect, I replaced one type of anxiety with another. This new anxiety sustained itself on a steady diet of adrenaline, in place of dread. I could feel the energy pumping in my veins, hot and potent, practically demanding that I act, that I move. I hated the sensation of raw nerves and the jitters that sent intermittent waves of tension through my body; I loved that raw power, the vitality, that propelled me forward through the ruined roads and side streets of the shanty town.

Was this how Devlin felt on the job? Every time he went into the lion’s den, armed only with his wits and whatever advantages he could cobble together out of thin air, did he rely on the same electric current of adrenaline to keep him at the top of his game? Just a few minutes of high voltage energy was a rush like none I’d ever felt. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to have this feeling on a regular basis.

Mila caught up with and then passed me, sliding to a halt at the very edge of a building. Her knife appeared, as if by magic, and she held it in front of herself in a reverse grip. Her free hand came up and formed a tight fist. I’d seen enough military movies to understand her intent. I stopped and crouched just behind her, wrestling down the adrenaline that called for me to keep moving.

Carefully, Mila leaned an inch out of cover so that she could see around the corner. She returned to concealment a moment later.

This time, I couldn’t keep the question from my lips. “What is it?”

We’re here,” she said. “Command center’s right around the corner.”

There’s a problem.” It wasn’t a question and I didn’t bother inflecting it as such. Of course there would a problem. Nothing in our lives came without difficulties.

Mila nodded, like she’d heard my thoughts and agreed with them. “The power’s on. They’ve got floodlights covering the front, maybe some in the back.”

Guards?”

None that I could see, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t men inside the command center. Why else keep the lights on?”

I closed my eyes for a second, thinking about possible answers so that. I couldn’t think of a dozen different actions and their immediate outcomes like Devlin could, but I was considerably better at following a single line of thought to its conclusion. All I had to do now was perform that same basic action in reverse.

What did I know? What had already been accomplished?

These slavers had, without alerting the local constabulary, pushed out the warlords and arms dealers. In order to purchase the weaponry for that kind of business required considerable cash resources and connections. If there were a powerful backer hiding in the shadows somewhere, maybe they were playing at the same game as my team: taking over the business during a vacant period, without having to trigger a turf war in the process.

But, no, that didn’t work. Local slavers wouldn’t speak English when no one was listening and foreign slavers couldn’t have gotten word about the power vacuum so quickly. Only two days ago, Devlin and I had both checked the news and heard nothing about her manufactured conflict. Rumors traveled quickly in the Underworld, to be certain, but not that fast. For these people to be here now, collecting children and selling them off like this, didn’t necessarily mean that they had connections. It meant that they were directly connected to this specific organization. There was no other way they could’ve known where to be and when.

If the slavers and the previous residents of the shanty town had been connected in any way, there’d be no reason to hit up the command center at all. All of the requisite information would already exist in a room, somewhere: codes, headcounts, weapon stashes, and so on. The lights might still be on, then, for no reason other than laziness. It’s not like they had an electric bill to worry about.

But…again, no, that wasn’t right either. The twenty year old boy with the machine gun had accepted Fatima into their group and she couldn’t possibly have been on any of their lists. Come to think of it, I hadn’t seen the boy even carrying a list to begin with. They seemed like nothing so much about opportunists, grabbing anything they could get their hands on before…before, what, exactly?

I was going about this the wrong way. Looking at what they’d accomplished would take me hours and I’d spent half of it changing my own mind. If I was going to figure this out, I’d have to change my thinking pattern. Chronological, order of events. What happened, when, and what happened as a result of that. I could extrapolate, potentially, from those facts.

We’d crippled the warlords. As a result, they’d reached out to Mamoud. He wanted more power and authority so, in exchange for their support, he agreed to create a crisis for Farrad to deal with. First, the warlords and now these slavers used the shanty town as a sort of pipeline for fresh children. Any child found within the boundaries of the shanty town was acceptable product and there didn’t seem to be any sort of accounting process to make sure that the same child wasn’t promised to two separate groups, for instance. It didn’t matter either way to these slavers.

But why didn’t it matter? Why wouldn’t it have mattered to me, in that situation?

With that thought, posed a hypothetical exercise in response to a fairly innocuous question, understanding struck me like a bolt from the heavens.

We have to get in there,” I said. “Now.”

We can wait a minute or two,” Mila said, “just to see if anyone comes out. You’ve still got an eye on Fatima and the boys need to get in position, so -”

Mila.” The tone of my voice caught her attention. She turned away from the command center and faced me. “They aren’t just taking the children, or making sure that no one knows they took the children. They’re here to erase everything. The Magi are going to wipe this place off of the face of the earth and pretend that it never existed at all.”

Mila didn’t need to understand the technical side of things to guess how badly things would go if the slavers were allowed to pull off a single step of their plan. Even if we managed to save the children in the moment, the Lady’s intervention would be stymied by local efforts without access to the full cache of information. That would lead to civil war in the Underworld and the primary victims of that war would be Fatima, Hisein, and the rest of the Urchins. Depending on the number of interested parties and the level of their respective interests in this territory, that could lead to deaths on a truly staggering scale.

If the command center held intelligence regarding the hunting season that the Community currently found itself enduring, that would be lost too. Caelum, or whatever agent the Magi were employing against my compatriots, would eventually root out the other four elites. After they fell, the full weight of their attention would fall on me and my team. More deaths, more loss.

And there was almost certainly a connection between the people inside the command center and the ones marching little boys and girls off to be sold at market. I’d made a little girl a promise, after she’d thrown herself into service as a mobile GPS. I intended to keep that promise.

So much at stake. So little time to make a plan.

What do you want to do?” Mila asked. “I can handle a three to one disadvantage in a straight fight, maybe more if they aren’t trained, but there’s enough room in there that someone could easily get a shot off.”

Are you wearing a vest?”

She arched an eyebrow. With her free hand, she pulled aside a little bit of fabric at her sternum, revealing a black Kevlar vest under her clothing. “Even if they hit me where the vest is toughest, I’m still going down. A few seconds to catch my breath is all it’d really take for them to swarm me. Besides…”

Besides,” I said, picking up the thread of her thoughts, “as soon as someone fires a gun, the game’s up. Everyone in earshot goes on high alert and everything gets that much more difficult.”

Shit,” Mila said.

For the second time, I considered opening a line to Devlin. He might have some equally brilliant and half-assed idea that would turn the tables. He’d start a fire, or uncover some secret passageway into the command center, or steal a train, if it allowed him to create a way when no way previously existed. Some thought would pop into his head, something simple and retroactively obvious, and he’d find a way to bring that thought to life. He’d know what to do.

I blinked. The train of my thoughts had bumped, out of nowhere, into a possible solution. I didn’t need to ask Devlin for advice; I knew what to do.

I dropped the bag and dug around until I located the requisite USB cables to connect to a tower. Those, I slipped into my pocket. The tablet responsible for coordinating the communications channels went under one arm. A third item – something small and unobtrusive enough that I virtually always carried it with me – I clenched in a tight fist.

Okay,” I said. “I’ve got an idea.”

Am I going to like it?”

Ask me after we pull it off?” A fierce grin, propelled more by adrenaline than actual amusement, flashed across my face. “I’m going to cut the power to the building.”

Don’t you need the computers to be on, so that you can do your thing?”

Electricity’s bad in this area, remember? If they’ve got a server in place, I’d be willing to bet they’ve installed some kind of generator as a back-up.”

Then what are you going to do?”

I opened my fist. There, in my palm, was a small, sharp pair of scissors with thick rubber handles. “I’m going to literally cut the power.”

She blinked. “And you think that could actually work?” Mila seemed both amazed and uncertain. Even my weak ability to read micro-expressions was more than enough to catch those two thoughts flash across her face and to understand why. This was exactly the sort of thing she’d expect from Devlin; from me, she’d probably been hoping for something a little more thought out.

If it doesn’t,” I said, “we’ll have to come up with something else awfully fast. Right now, though, get in position by that front door. As soon as the lights go out, get in there and start clearing the room. Keep it as quiet as possible.”

Mila rummaged in her own bag and, eventually, drew out a slender black rod, almost six inches long. She experimentally pressed a button one end of the red with her thumb and it telescoped out to a length of tow, maybe two and a half feet. She grunted approvingly and pressed another hidden button. The brief crackle of electricity sparked at one end and the sharp smell of ozone filled the immediate vicinity.

I’ve been looking for an excuse to use this,” she said to me in a conspiratorial tone.

Then, using what little darkness remained in the face of the command center’s floodlights, Mila hurried over to a position just to the right of the main entrance. I watched her carefully. If someone were lurking in wait to ambush us, or if a group of slavers picked this particular moment to wander near the command center, she’d have to improvise in order to save both of our lives. When with her handgun secured in my bag, I wouldn’t be much to use to her at this distance. Without an opportunity to recharge my stun gun, I wouldn’t really be much use to her up close, either, except that I’d at least be able to confuse any assailants.

Nothing happened. After a few tense seconds, Mila waved for me to make my own approach. I didn’t move as smoothly as she did, or with anywhere near as much confidence, but there weren’t any unexpected surprises as I covered the few yards. Instead of heading for the door, I crept around the side of the command center. I didn’t see what I was looking for at first but, when I turned the next corner and reached the back of the building, I spotted two generators chugging away.

One of the generators was larger, with a cord that connected directly to the transfer switch at the back of the building. The other, smaller and newer, sported several sockets. Each of those sockets was occupied by a power cord that ran up the wall and into the building proper, through a high window.

They’ve got two generators,” I whispered into the comms.

Two?” Mila replied.

Big one’s probably for the lights.” Probably.

What are you going to do?”

I’m cutting the bigger generator off. Stay on your toes.”

At the larger of the two generators, one propane tank was already in its proper place, providing the generator with the fuel necessary for it to function. Another tank, of roughly equivalent size, was nestled underneath the generator itself, in a little alcove that had presumably been constructed for that purpose. I followed the thick red cord from the back of the generator all the way up to the transfer switch with a finger. With time and tools, I could have easily disconnected everything and shut down power to the command center without raising an alarm. I had neither time nor tools, however.

Mila,” I whispered into the comms. The window was a good distance away from me, but I couldn’t squelch the foolish concern that someone was listening specifically for my voice. “Get ready.”

Then, gripping the rubber handles of my scissors with both hands, I began to stab violently at the cord connecting the generator to the command center.

In my line of work, I often find it necessary to splice wires or clip certain cords. Smaller scissors are best for those jobs, as a lack of precision is often the thin line between success and failure. A misfiring circuit in one of the earbuds, for instance, could leave someone in the wind for a few crucial seconds and end up costing someone their life. A badly wired network cable could drop my connection when I needed it most. But, with smaller scissors like the ones I routinely kept on, it was easy to target specific wires and sever them with no collateral damage.

This was not delicate work. The process of cutting power to the command center without researching the grid, understanding what equipment might be in the room, and honestly not even recognizing the type of generator in use was simple brute work, made more difficult by the need to stay as quiet as possible.

If not for the rubber handles, I probably would have shocked or electrocuted myself. Even then, while I worked, I wasn’t sure if this haphazard plan would turn out to be anything more than an elaborate suicide attempt. But, options being as limited as they were, I wasn’t going to let ‘perfection’ be the enemy of ‘good enough,’ or even the enemy of ‘why the hell not.’

From my position at the back of the command center, away from the floodlights and too far beneath the window to actually hear much, there weren’t any real signs of progress to keep track of. The generator kept on humming, going through its propane supply as quickly as it could. The smell was beginning to get uncomfortable, but I soldiered through, stabbing at the thick red cord with wild abandon. Not every downward blow struck the cord, but enough did. After I made it through the outer protective layer, revealing the bundled wires inside, I shifted my grip and began cutting through everything my scissor blades could reach. At this job, slender blades were a better fit. I was able to get in through the widening gap and cut through the many-colored wires.

A man’s voice yelled something in a language I didn’t understand or even recognize and I went instantly still. A moment later, several more voices cried out of fearful alarm. These cries were punctuated by groans, gurgles, cracking wood, and a persistent – albeit infrequent – crackling.

It took less than two minutes before the sounds stopped. I didn’t move a muscle – didn’t want to move a muscle – but I wasn’t sure how long I’d be able to be a statue before my muscles gave out or adrenaline forced me into action.

Mila saved me from discovering my own limits by leaning out of the window. Her hair had come out of its tight pony tail. Some strands were plastered to her forehead and cheeks by sweat, while others hung in her eyes.

She smiled. “If you like that stun gun of yours,” she said, “you have got to try this.”

I stared up at her.

Did you want to hang around out there?” Mila asked. “Or are you going to come inside and do your job?”

After a few beats of silence, I gathered my tools and headed around to do exactly that.